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Telling Better Stories Workshop

The Small Farms Program hosted Telling Better Stories: Journalism Training for Small Farm Educators and Farmer Writers April 11th at the Mann Library. The workshop grew from discussions on how to help people tell stories about small farms and local agriculture.

All fifty spots filled quickly, demonstrating the need for this kind of community education. Forty people came from New York State, and the rest came from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and as far as New Hampshire. Thirty-five of these were farmers or ag service providers, and a number of the remaining participants were writers.

The workshop followed two tracks, one focusing on nuts and bolts elements and the other on using multi-media tools. Instructors included a range of professionals with expertise in communications, particularly telling agricultural stories.

Jill Swenson taught journalism for 20 years, ending up at Ithaca College. Her work at the University of Georgia and the Rural Revitalization Initiative, which brought the faculty out into the communities, was similar to this workshop – except for the lack of web resources. Back then, she said, it was a big deal to connect farmers and journalists from northern and southern parts of the state through email lists.

In April, she had lots of advice for using the Internet to build strong stories and dig for good sources. This was in her first session, called Focus on Fact Finding, and she covered the basics of researching stories, diving into ways to use social media and other Internet sources to build solid narratives.

Her second session, on Interviews, Quotes and Writing Dialogue Style, covered the practicalities of interviewing and the conventions of writing dialogue. She also spoke about the different approaches writers need to have when interviewing farmers, as compared to government officials or other subjects who work in a single office,

“Generally you are going to have to walk along and fit your questions into a farmers agenda,” she said, recommending people listen to farmers, and ask questions that won’t lead to yes or no answers. She also cautioned that farmers are often suspicious of people from the media, based on previous experiences. However, writers should work to create good connections. Other sources you might never see for the rest of your life.

“When you’re reporting on farm communities you’re cultivating a long term relationship,” said Swenson.
John Suscovitch, Kara Cusolito and Aaron Munzer are farmers who are working parallel lives in media. Suscovitch led two workshops in the multi-media track, one on pictures and one on podcasts.

Troy Bishopp, otherwise known as The Grass Whisperer, came to the workshop with a lot of experience in communicating farm messages – mostly about grazing – in person, online and in print. Telling Better Stories intrigued him because of John Suscovitch’s skills.

“I specifically went to learn more about crafting better photos and editing them, as well as doing video and podcast production,” Bishopp said. “I have since been inspired to take better pictures using the knowledge I learned to provide stock photos to Lancaster Farming and to OnPasture.com, as well as our conservation district and Upper Susquehanna Coalition website.”
Bishopp sent this reporter a stunning image of dandelions and cows, evidence of Suscovich’s talents as a photography instructor.
Suscovitch’s second session on podcasts thoroughly outlined his setup and production methods for Growing Farmers, a weekly podcast series he creates.

Kara Cusolito showed people how to reincarnate their story ideas for several different markets. Aaron Munzer led a session on Show and Tell – a play on the common command to writers that you should show, not tell.

“My communications career predates the Internet, predates social media, and so much has changed but so much has stayed the same,” said Craig Cramer of his session titled Big ideas. Small words. Short sentences. Cramer is a communications specialist in the Department of Horticulture at Cornell.

People don’t read, they scan, he told participants, advising them to cut word counts by 25-50% and seeing if they could still get their point across. Make fewer words do the job, he advised, by using self-editing, short sentences and paragraphs, with only one idea per paragraph.

“Even though the media has changed, the main thing is that focus on the audience,” said Cramer. “Anybody who really wants to do this needs to have that often elusive ability to focus in and think like the people they’re trying to connect with. Know what their information needs are, and you’ll know the best way to connect with them.”

He enjoyed being a part of the day because he understands the value of storytelling.

“Farmers have a story to tell and that story can help make their farms successful,” he said.

Rebecca Heller-Steinberg came to the workshop because she works for small farms in a number of capacities, and wants to be able to communicate well with the various publics she serves. For instance, she provides a newsletter for the winter CSA she runs. Extended Harvest connects members with frozen and fresh foods from the Binghamton area and the Hudson Valley, and features winter add-ons like regional grains. This summer, she’s coordinating the Binghamton Farm Share Program, a modified CSA pilot program aimed at increasing access to healthy, affordable food.

While she hasn’t used what she learned at the workshop yet, she looks forward to applying it in an upcoming writing project.
“I will be interviewing Deborah Madison soon for NOFA-NY’s Organic News, so I’ll review the information from the workshop prior to that,” she said.

This was the first time the Small Farms Program offered training of this sort, aiming to develop the storytelling skills of both farmers and educators. While consumers have a lot of information from films, books and other big picture, national media outlets, they are ready to be fed the stories that illustrate people who are making farms work in their locales. Good stories of great projects show the benefits of supporting small-scale agriculture in your backyard.

“Evaluation feedback showed a lot of interest in a more intensive follow-up training,” said Violet Stone from the Small Farms Program. “We hope to continue to offer communication-themed workshops to farmers and agriculture educators in the future.”

Amy Halloran

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