From Brooklyn to Boone County, and back again

Mar 6, 2014

Our Abbie Fentress Swanson (second from left) reported stories while hip-deep in water and on the road across the Midwest.
Credit Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media

When I was offered this job nearly two years ago, I jumped at the opportunity to move to Columbia, Mo., from Brooklyn, N.Y., to cover agriculture and food production in the Heartland.

I had heard that at Harvest Public Media, reporters were encouraged to seek out significant, underreported stories related to the food system and to interview as many people as needed to get to the heart of the story. With the help of experienced, whip-smart editors, the tape that reporters gathered was crafted into sound-rich, in-depth features that aired on NPR stations across the Midwest, and often across the country. Such jobs are extraordinarily rare these days, and that’s why I moved to Missouri on a very hot, dry day in July 2012.

I knew leaving Brooklyn for Boone County was the right career move. But my time on the farm beat here has been much more rewarding than I ever imagined. Besides talking with farmers, scientists and consumers who had never before been interviewed by a reporter for a story, I traveled to parts of the state that few journalists get to travel to for work.

I rode a tug boat down the Mississippi River to a corn barge for a piece on how the drought affected grain exporters. I donned waders with scientists last spring to test for ag runoff in Midwestern streams, and learned during a tour of a nearby water treatment plant that taxpayers spend millions to remove these chemicals from drinking water. To fully grasp the impact of a massive Tyson poultry plant on the tiny rural town of Noel, Mo., I spent several days interviewing immigrant slaughterhouse workers and their children in taquerias, schools, housing projects and on soccer fields. I also reconnected with my own farm roots on a visit with cousins, who are growing corn and soybeans on the same piece of Illinois land that my great-great-grandfather bought over a century ago.

There have been so many other Missouri adventures I have experienced off the clock – like floating down the Current River in a canoe, listening to twangy bluegrass with a plate of barbecue, canning tomatoes grown in my first garden, and sipping cool glasses of bourbon at my favorite local watering hole. So it is with a bit of a heavy heart that I have decided to move back to Brooklyn this month to be closer to friends and family.

While I’m excited about this next chapter – which I hope will include occassionally working with Harvest Public Media and KBIA – it will be difficult to find such a talented group of reporters and editors to work with. I don’t expect to meet so many generous sources, either; sources that will patiently walk me through background information for stories and kindly share so much of their time with me. I owe a huge debt, too, to public radio listeners who weighed in on my stories, and who continue to support our efforts to shed light on important issues that often go unnoticed. I hope you will all keep listening.