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“Why can’t you plant corn when it’s wet?”

That was the question I got asked this weekend over lunch by a writer who contributes to Fortune Magazine and CNNMoney.

At first, I thought I was going to faint. Until I heard my co-worker, Kristy Foster, begin to explain to the lady why planting in wet ground doesn’t work.

“You get stuck … the tractor sinks into the ground,” Kristy explained, in a tone much more polite than I had imagined.

Then I joined in, as well, and helped explain to the lady what soil compaction is and how seeds can rot if they’re wet for too long.

No kidding

To those of you who farm or garden, the reason you can’t plant seeds when the ground is wet is a no-brainer. And you might wonder whether anyone who doesn’t know this, is less intelligent.

Often, as in this case, it has nothing to do with smarts, but everything to do with what the person knows.

Kristy and I spent Saturday at a journalism training event in Westerville, Ohio, just north of Columbus.

The event was sponsored by Investigative Reporters and Editors and was designed to help us become better watchdogs of what happens in public and private business.

The speakers talked about open records, subsidies, campaign contributions and some of the latest Internet tools to help dig up material the public should know.

We heard from a couple Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters, a local TV investigator from WBNS-Columbus, and several staff from The Columbus Dispatch, including Managing Editor Alan Miller.

Everything is relative

One lesson I will remember is the fact a number only has meaning as it relates to another number.

Corn that yields 250 bushels per acre is excellent. But to know that, you have to know the yield range typical for corn.

A dairy farm that milks 300 cows might sound like a mega-farm if you don’t know much about dairy farming. But by comparison, it’s actually a fairly small herd, unless you’re comparing it to a small Amish dairy.

Common knowledge?

These things are common sense to the readers of our newspaper, Farm and Dairy. As a publication focused on agriculture, we often assume our readers know what is a bushel and a ton, a tractor versus a combine and a bull versus a cow.

But the reality is, many people do not.

The conversation Kristy and I had with the Fortune and CNN writer was interesting.

On the one hand, sitting beside us was a published author who writes for publications that reach tens of thousand of more readers than our own. She’s an expert in the financial world, and the market language that goes with it.

But on the other hand, here was Kristy and I, knowing the ins and the outs about Ohio agriculture, the biggest trends and biggest challenges.

Learning from each other

She asked us about the condition of farm markets, how borrowing works for farmers, about farm business cycles and investments. And I asked her which businesses she covered, how she got her news and the most recent trends.

It turns out both of our publications are following the Marcellus and Utica shale boom, and she and Kristy conversed about where it’s all going, and different sides of the environmental debate.

I explained how we’ve been having a lot of rain this spring.

“Is that good?” she asked.

Of course it’s not good, but until I started talking inches and compared it to previous years, it didn’t make any sense.

Proper context

Farming is that way — it requires a context to be understood.

We also talked a bit about farm subsidies. It seems that everyone has heard about the huge amounts of money farmers supposedly receive.

But what they’re often not hearing is how many years the subsidy is divided over, or how many acres or employees the farmer maintains in relation to his subsidy.

Or, how much money he had to lose due to inclement weather or disease before he was compensated.

Or, where does the subsidy money go? It’s usually into equipment and seed — not a retirement account or a vacation to a tropical island.

Farming is not short on numbers or facts. But it’s important they be handled with respect to the proper context.

The context is what gives them meaning, and without it they can be misinterpreted to mean anything.

Chris Kick lives in Wooster, Ohio. An American FFA Degree recipient, he holds a bachelor’s in creative writing from Ashland University. He spends his free time on his grandparents’ farms in Wayne and Holmes counties.
Chris Kick
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