A Post from Sam Fromertz’s Blog Chewswise: A Few Comments on the Food & Environmental Reporting Network (FERN)

I’m pleased to announce that this week the Food & Environment Reporting Network launched. I’ve been working on this a non-profit journalism venture quiety for some time (two or more years), and now serve as editor. It grew out of an impromptu discussion with several people into an organization with a staff, board and editorial advisory board. Our launch coincided with the publication of our first story in High Country News, an award-winning Western magazine which collaborated with us on the piece.

We’re supported in this work by several foundations who believe in our vision of producing stories on food, agriculture and environmental health at a time when interest in those areas is growing but in-depth coverage is waning. In our model, we work closely with reporters and media partners so that these stories can see the light of day. We also have a code of ethics that governs our work. 

Now, you might wonder, why not just start a blog? Well, blogs are good models, but what we have in mind is traditional reporting: sending a reporter into the field on an in-depth investigation and giving them the chance to really look into a story. This kind of work is expensive and often falls through the cracks in the rush of the 24-hour news cycle. If you’re tied to a blog, this work is especially tough. 

Our first story is a clear example of how this works. Reporter Stephanie Paige Ogburn went down to New Mexico to look into a story about water pollution arising from large dairy farms, focusing on a citizen who launched a campaign to fight it. The story is a good one, in part because the character isn’t your typical “environmentalist.” (He sports an NRA hat). Ogburn widens the net from what might be viewed as a local story, tying it into broader issues the West has faced with mega-dairies. She also explains the complex regulatory issues with ease.

In the coming weeks, you’ll see more work out of FERN (I’m not going to scoop myself and tell you what it is) in a variety of publications. Until then, I leave you with the lead of Ogburn’s story:

Jerry Nivens lives in a trailer in Caballo, N.M., 165 miles south of Albuquerque. A bulky Texas transplant who chain-smokes American Spirits, Nivens cares as deeply for his mesquite-speckled patch of ground as any rural New Mexican. He enjoys driving into the mountains, where he used to while away afternoons panning for gold. He goes fishing Lone Star-style–in reservoirs, not rivers.

On the sunny May day I met him, he spilled out of his GMC Jimmy sporting a National Rifle Association ballcap and Magnum P.I.-style sunglasses. He wore brown corduroy pants hung from suspenders with a matching jacket over a plaid shirt. A giant Marlboro belt buckle completed the ensemble. As we drove around, Nivens marveled at artesian pools supporting desert wildlife, exclaimed as a squadron of baby quail crossed our path, and wondered over underground rivers that run to the nearby Rio Grande. Retired from the refrigeration business, he earns money from an invention of his used for water purification. He spends much of his time alone. “I’m kind of an old hermit,” he says.

Which, in a way, was why I had come–to learn how and why this loner became the driving force behind a movement that brought the state’s mega-dairies to heel. The dairy industry is New Mexico’s largest agricultural sector and an influential lobbying force. Although the state Environment Department has long worked with dairies to reduce pollution, change has been slow: Almost 60 percent of the state’s dairies have polluted groundwater with manure runoff, yet not one has begun the required cleanup. (Read the rest at FERN or HCN). 


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