Energy, farms, environment bring MU students to NW Missouri

Published: Sept. 18, 2008
Story Source: Bill Allen, 573-884-7863

Petzel and Shuck
Ag journalism students Jessica Petzel, left, and Julia Shuck compare notes at the Laur farm.

COLUMBIA, Mo.- University of Missouri journalism students sloshed through rain, stood beneath a giant wind turbine, and shared meals and stories with northwest Missouri farmers as part of an intensive field trip Sept. 12-14. At the end of each day, the 13 students returned to their motel to decipher notes, write and file their stories - with an instructor.

The trip, called the 2008 Sonja Hillgren/Farm Journal Ag Journalism Field Reporting Institute, covered 737 miles by bus and a few more on foot.

"This is a pretty intense but really rewarding immersion experience," said Bill Allen, coordinator of the Agricultural Journalism Program at MU and organizer of the trip. "These students showed how tough they are - physically and intellectually. From dawn to 11 at night they never let up."

The field trip is part of the course "Field Reporting on the Food System and Environment." The course explores the scientific, economic, political, environmental, social and ethical dimensions of the food system and the environment. The aim is to help students gain confidence in their ability to complete complicated, independent field reporting projects.

The MU Agricultural Journalism Program in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources conducts the annual institute in cooperation with the Missouri School of Journalism. The trip was made possible by a gift from Farm Journal in memory of MU alumna Sonja Hillgren. Hillgren died in December 2006 after serving for decades as the nation's premier farm writer. She covered farm policy for Farm Journal, United Press International and Knight Ridder.

Group shot

In addition to Allen, the students were accompanied by John Schneller, MU assistant professor of journalism and Columbia Missourian metro editor; Bill Heffernan, MU emeritus professor of rural sociology; Pamela Henderson Smith, seeds and production editor at Farm Journal; Repps Hudson, former agriculture and business reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; and George Laur, publications coordinator for MU Extension.

At the stops, students were guided and instructed by a wide range of experts. Stops included Kansas City Power & Light's Iatan coal-fired power plant; Gary Gagnon farm, Union Star; Big Lake State Park, Craig; Golden Triangle Energy ethanol plant, Craig; Dennis Erickson farm and packaging plant, Rock Port; David Laur farm and Morning Sun Seed, Westboro; Wind Capital Group wind farms, Rock Port; Richard Oswald farm, Langdon; and Lifeline Foods, St. Joseph. They also had a taste of the local culture with a Saturday evening meal at KJ's restaurant in Westboro.

"What surprised me the most about our field experience was how the world of agriculture, energy and environment are so closely knit together," said Jena Thompson, sophomore ag journalism major. "When I think of the politics of the different sectors, there is not much they have in common. But out in the community they are forced to work together every day."

Eric Chamberlain, Wind Capital Group, explains wind turbines to MU journalism and ag journalism students.

Andrew Del-Colle, master's student in journalism, said: "Simply put, it was one of the best educational experiences I have ever had. There has not been a minute since I returned to Columbia that I have not had some aspect of the trip creep back into my thoughts. I loved the reality of it all."

In the weeks preceding the trip, the students studied and discussed field reporting techniques and such issues as corn agriculture, biofuels, wind energy, coal-fired power plants, electric power distribution and the federal Conservation Reserve Program.

To complete the course, students will conduct further interviews and research, and write an in-depth explanatory news story about an issue they encountered on the trip.

Each night, after returning to their motel, they wrote journal entries and stories describing the day's events and people they met. A typical journal entry read like this one from a student riding the bus back to Columbia:

"Learned a whole ton more than I thought I would - including more about corn, supply and demand, ethanol, etc. Current status is tired, feeling used up, daunted but very glad I went."

Media Contact
George Laur
Publications Coordinator
University of Missouri Extension
Phone: 573-882-0850

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