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Beautiful view out over the Mississippi river from Bellevue state park, Iowa.

Along the Mississippi River, Keeping Environment Reporters on the Beat

August 24, 2021
Informing farmers on issues like soil loss and water quality supports a healthier agricultural future

On the final episode of this season’s “Field Work” podcast, hosts Zach Johnson and Mitchell Hora were talking carbon. “It’s really interesting to see the different players that are coming to the table who know that they want to do something when it comes to carbon or sustainability, but they don’t really know what the heck they wanna do,” says Zach. “That’s our message as farmers, it’s saying ‘Hey, here’s how you can actually help us, here is an opportunity for us to work with you and make this mutually beneficial.”

The popular podcast, hosted by the two row-crop farmers from Iowa and Minnesota, explores the good, bad and ugly of adopting sustainable agricultural practices. The Walton Family Foundation provides funding for the program as part of a broader effort to support traditional and emerging agricultural and environmental journalism in the Mississippi River Basin.

The Mississippi River Basin covers more than 40% of the continental United States, supplying water, supporting agriculture and sustaining the livelihoods of millions of Americans. But reliance on the corn-soy rotation combined with the recent increase in extreme weather events caused by climate change has exacerbated soil erosion, worsened water quality and made the region increasingly susceptible to flooding and droughts.

Boosting the health and resiliency of the basin is at the heart of the foundation’s environment program work. And change starts with an informed public.

Quality journalism of all kinds, from podcasters to local papers to radio programs, not only enhances transparency and accountability for decisionmakers, but enables the most threatened communities to better understand and have a voice in the water and climate issues that impact their everyday lives.

Mitchell Hora is an Iowa farmer and co-host of the podcast Field Work.

The decline of print journalism in recent years has been well documented, and nowhere has this been more evident than in small, hometown papers. Despite the gravity of the issues they cover, agriculture and environmental reporters have been among the first jobs to be cut as newsrooms adjust to changing times, consolidating beats and reassigning reporters to other urgent new stories.

And while international outlets do cover major climate issues and their impacts on the river, these stories don’t always reach readers and viewers in the Heartland. For many farmers, for example, reading the local paper or listening to the radio while spending long days in the field or driving rural roads is often the most reliable and accessible means of information.

Through support for news programs like "Field Work," "This American Land" and others, the foundation is committed to ensuring quality environmental journalism in the Mississippi River Basin continues to be available and accessible to farmers and residents throughout the region. We are meeting people and communities where they are, and where they get their news.

Now, the work is expanding. Through a major, three-year partnership with the University of Missouri School of Journalism, the foundation is supporting the creation of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk — a collaborative network of journalists focused on increasing coverage of agriculture, water and environmental issues in the basin.

Iowa farmer Mitchell Hora planted this cereal rye crop in the fall of 2019 to harvest as a relay crop the next spring.

In partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places talented emerging journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics and communities, the network will assign 10 journalists to newsrooms throughout the region. Each will receive training and mentorship from faculty and staff at the school, along with experts from the Society of Environmental Journalists.

It’s an extension of similar projects already undertaken across the country, and a rounding out of a nationwide strategy to support quality environmental journalism, including the University of Colorado’s Water Desk covering the Colorado River Basin, and the Times-Picayune Coastal Desk and New Orleans Public Radio’s Coastal Desk covering the Gulf Coast.

As our Environment Program Director Moira Mcdonald often says, “Places that are loved are places that are protected.” The stories of the Mississippi River Basin are stories worth telling. By supporting local journalists who cover agriculture, water and climate change, we believe more people will better understand how their behavior and practices can positively impact the health of the river and their communities, and be more willing to protect natural resources for the future.

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