By Denise Tessier
Earlier this month, an UpFront column in the Albuquerque Journal got me so teed off I ended up spreading the gist of it in conversations with friends and family. I wanted to make sure they were aware, too, of what I perceived as an injustice and new level of ludicrousness on the part of the federal government.
What got me going was the Oct. 4 piece (subscription required) about Embudo Valley Organics not selling local organic turkeys this year. If you read the story all the way through – and it’s a crisp, but blood-boiling read – you’re left thinking they were shut down by the feds for not having enough razor wire to prevent Osama bin Laden and anthrax-wielding terrorists from poisoning our food supply.
If you read it again more carefully (which I did, because it all sounded so unjust) the story did clarify about half-way through that the feds “overlooked the lack of anti-bin Laden wire” stressed so strongly in the first part of the article. However, it said, “they dinged the place” on three other problems, all of which seemed equally ludicrous and onerous for a small family farm.
I believed the farm was forced into suspending its turkey operation — and had no reason to think otherwise — because the story appeared well researched, and because I respect the writer, Leslie Linthicum.
Then I got my weekly newsletter from Los Poblanos Organics farmer Monte Skaarsgard, whom I truly hold in high regard.
And he wrote that the UpFront column “is simply not true.”
“We have been friends with the Embudo dudes for seven years now,” Skaarsgard wrote. “We get our feed for our turkeys and chickens from them.”
Skaarsgard went on to say that Embudo is “an amazing business” whose owner, David Rigsby, experienced the “tragic loss” of his wife in the off season.
From the newsletter:
And their assistant farm manager quit right when the season was about to get going.
Feeling overwhelmed, they took the year off to regroup and rebuild their strength. But the federal government did not run them out.
I confirmed what Skaarsgard had written when I talked by phone to a manager at Embudo Valley Organics, who did not want to be quoted because he said he was feeling a little unhappy with the media at the moment (citing the UpFront column). He did say closure of the turkey operation was an “internal decision completely” and that the feds did not shut it down. In fact, I was told the farm plans to sell turkeys next year.
Certainly, Linthicum didn’t make this stuff up.
There were rumors of a federal shutdown months before the column ran, and the farm apparently has had a lot of phone calls as a result. Four months before the column, in fact, a New Mexico chicken farmer not affiliated with Embudo Valley Organics testified at a hearing that Embudo’s turkey operation was already a casualty of federal regulation and had been shut down. The comments were made at a “Listening Session” sponsored by U.S. Department of Agriculture officials in Albuquerque on June 16. (This pdf can be downloaded by doing a search listing “embudo, listening session, turkey”; then read pages 68 and 69.)
Many stories and columns result from hearsay and rumors; the writer’s job is to check them out. The resulting UpFront column packs in a lot of information and research. It quotes Embudo’s owner, David Rigsby, about what the feds allegedly wanted, and the farm’s manager, John McMullin, is quoted as saying said the feds “put a lot of hurdles up that could put a small farm out of business.” (My emphasis added.) The story gives a history of how inspections used to be done by the New Mexico Livestock Board, but were handed over in 2007 to the feds, who are new at the job.
And deep into the story, almost at the end, Linthicum wrote:
The farm is trying to work with the FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service), meet the federal standards and get back into the gobbler business next year.
Nowhere does she say the feds shut the farm down. She says the “farm opted out of raising turkeys this year while it sorts this all out.” Yet, it’s a natural conclusion to think federal regulation is why there will be no turkeys this year - and there’s no mention of anything else going on at the farm that might have contributed to the decision to suspend operations.
Looks like the headline writer got that impression, too; the jump headline was: “Turkey Farm Runs Afoul of Feds.” (The front-page headline was “Talking Turkey With Feds May Cause Migraine.”)
Skaarsgard, who like the Embudo farmers, has to work with federal inspectors in order to stay in business, called the column “op ed compost”. He added that it, “surprisingly, . . . ended up on the front page:”
The one page of the paper that you would hope and expect would deliver news and not someone’s poorly researched opinion. . .
Skaarsgard’s comment about being surprised to see opinion on the front page illustrates a point ABQJournalWatch has made about how readers perceive UpFront, a self-described “daily front-page opinion column.”
Skaarsgaard’s comments conclude with this:
Here is the thing that fries me the most: I hate scare tactics. I do not like when the government uses them. I hate it when businesses use them. And I hate it when the press uses them.
Look, we need regulation in the food industry. Period. We have had people die from tainted spinach, so the federal government is trying to ensure our safety. Will they make it all perfect right off the bat? Of course not.
But I have seen way too much fear-mongering this year in regards to food. . . .
Journalists sometimes describe their craft as “threading the needle” – meaning they are being careful about the wording of every sentence in a multi-faceted story like this one and skillfully string those sentences together. Each sentence can be accurate. And when they are, the result is a column or story that achieves a kind of truth. Oftentimes, that is the best one can do with a given subject. And yet, sometimes the result falls short of the whole truth.
Calling it opinion doesn’t change that.