2011 Writing Contest Winners

(Awards for the best writing in 2011 were presented April 16, 2012 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.)


Judged by Charlie Weaver

1ST – Jonathan Knutson, Agweek – “A long, wet ag disaster”

Judge: I loved the narrative lede, it really foreshadows and personalizes the issue nicely. I particularly liked the construction of the overall narrative where you take the reader almost through the stages of the “grieving process” the individuals effected by the lake were facing. I was, however, still left wanting in regards to what the state planned on doing about the issue — which does well to punctuate the end of the story and reinforce the hopelessness the community members are feeling.

2ND – Mikkel Pates. Agweek – “Whistle-blower?”

Judge: The balance of this piece was well done and thoroughly reported. I appreciated the additional sidebars that tied the whole story together and painted a very insightful picture of all involved. I didn’t find myself choosing sides while reading — which, in my opinion is the cornerstone of great investigative journalism.

3RD – Jim Patrico, DTN/The Progressive Farmer – “Extension: Still relevant?”

Judge: The historical lede is very effective and the nut graph kicks off a very interesting and thorough story about the symbiotic relationship between all of the agencies involved in extension and its management. Mapping out the overlaps really gives the reader the understanding that the issue doesn’t necessarily have a cut-and-dried solution.


  • David Hendee, Omaha World-Herald — “Deaths increase care taken with prescribed burns”
  • Todd Neeley, DTN/The Progressive Farmer — “Pulp, paper companies amend tax returns: Actions could cost taxpayers billions of dollars”
  • Mikkel Pates, Agweek — “The push: Did U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service push South Dakota farmer too hard?””
  • Lori Potter, Kearney Hub — “Ag leaders say proposed federal child labor rules not a good fit for farms, ranches”
  • Christine Stebbins, Thomson Reuters — “Crop scientists now fret about heat not just water”


Judged by Bill Felber, Executive editor of the Manhattan (Kan.) Mercury

Felber is a native of Chicago’s South Side, he graduated from Kansas State University with a degree in journalism and has worked in that field for more than three decades. He is a former member of the board of directors of Associated Press Managing Editors. A baseball historian and researcher, he has authored studies for Total Baseball and other publications on numerous on-field and off-field aspects of the game. He has judged the NAAJ contest in past years.

1ST – Victoria Myers, DTN/The Progressive Farmer — “Wildfires take out forages and animals”

2ND – Tom Polansek, Thomson Reuters — “MF Global sells exchange seat, cuts ties to grains’’

3RD – Ron Friesen, Manitoba Co-operator — “Mass evacuation for cattle near Lake Manatoba’’


  • Jerry Hagstrom, The Hagstrom Report — “Super Committee failure means uniform cuts as Congress fights over new farm bill”
  • Dan Miller – DTN/The Progressive Farmer — “Hula wins yield contest’’


Judged by George Edmonson

Edmonson retired from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2005 after nearly 35 years as a reporter and editor at newspapers across the country. In addition to judging the occasional journalism contest, he writes periodically for a couple of cigar Web sites. He lives in Tarpon Springs, Fla.

“This category was as difficult to judge as any I’ve ever encountered. The wealth of good stories, well told and well reported, is a testament to the high quality work being done in this field.

“These reporters are storytellers with an eye for the telling detail and revealing scene that make their pieces come alive. The subject range was enormous. I read about high-tech developments and old-fashioned ways, corporate farming and urban gardening, environmental fear and complaints about over-regulation. And much, much more.

“No one could read these stories and fail to be impressed.”

1ST – Jim Patrico, DTN/The Progressive Farmer — “Animal lovers”

“This story is just what a feature should be: a compelling read that informs, enlightens and entertains the reader. Focusing on a single farm family, the story explores many issues with subtlety and wit. Excellent work.”

2ND – Nate Seltenrich, East Bay Express (Oakland, Calif.) — “How safe is your soil?’’

“A textbook example of extraordinarily deep reporting and clear explanatory writing wrapped with a finely crafted human element. This story examines not only the problem but possible solutions as well.”

3RD (tie)

– Jack Kaskey, Bloomberg Businessweek — “Attack of the superweed’’

“A fascinating story written tightly with a sense of authority grounded in strong reporting. It covers all the angles and explains a complex issue with clarity and economy.”


– David Hendee, Omaha World-Herald — “Eco-tourism could turn into a cash crop’’

“Coverage of this workshop could have been a brief, but is instead a terrific story brought to life with on-scene reporting and insightful context. Another fine example of agricultural reporting that isn’t limited to the fields and farms.”


  • Mary Baxter, Better Farming – “Lyme disease: The painful and hard-to-diagnose infection”
  • Amy Bickel, Hutchinson (Kan.) News – “Population drain dazes rural areas’’
  • Chris Clayton, DTN/The Progressive Farmer — “Drought challenges assumptions”
  • William DeKay, The Western Producer — “Whip-cracking cowboy works herd, entertains”
  • Barb Glen, The Western Producer — “Saving wildlife habitat”


Judged by Sue Burzynski Bullard

1ST – Katie Micik, DTN/The Progressive Farmer — “Farming on the border”

Judge:  Farming on the Border” details how waves of illegal immigrants affect farmers and ranchers on the U.S. border with Mexico.  The stories put readers alongside landowners, who say the nature of foot traffic has changed to include armed smugglers bringing drugs and migrants across the border. The writer paints vivid detail. One rancher estimates 20 percent of his time is spent tending to border-traffic issues – including cut fences and broken water pipes. Whatever your view on U.S. immigration policy, this series, “Farming on the Border” takes readers to ground zero.

2ND – Mikkel Pates, Agweek – “Rick’s world: Upside down dairy still looks ahead”

Judge: “Rick’s World” dissects controversy surrounding a number of dairy-farm partnerships across three states.  Some 13,000 cows were involved in the deals. Subsequent bankruptcies spawned critics and inquiries. One farming couple said their part of the deal cost them $1.2 million, setting them back 10 years financially.  Was it bad timing in a tough economy, mismanagement, or what? “Rick’s World” digs up details to help readers make up their minds — including an extensive time line showing when deals developed and, in some cases, soured.

3RD – Elizabeth Williams and Marcia Zarley Taylor DTN/The Progressive Farmer – “Senior Partners’’

Judge: Two sure things are death and taxes. You can’t avoid the former. But you can do plenty to legally pay less tax and make things go smoothly as you pass the family farm to the next generation, reports “Senior Partners.”  Some 97 percent of family businesses fail to keep family and business together for more than three generations, says the series.  Well-written stories go deep into ways to organize orderly transitions.


  • Elizabeth Campbell, Jeff Wilson, Justin Doom, Debarati Roy, Joseph Richter, Whitney McFerron, all of  Bloomberg News — “Hay sent to China cheaper roiling U.S. dairies”
  • Chris Clayton, DTN/The Progressive Farmer — “Grounding Climate Science”
  • Chris Clayton, DTN/The Progressive Farmer — “Drought Challenges Assumptions”
  • Phyllis Griekspoor and Rhonda McCurry, Kansas Farmer — “Taking Care of Kansans”
  • Katie Micik, DTN/The Progressive Farmer — “Changing Face of Ag Women”


Judged by Mike Toner

1ST – Gil Gullickson, Successful Farming — “$1.123 billion…”

Judge: “At a time when it’s popular to knock public spending on almost any research as wasteful, it’s reassuring to see a writer point out that popular perceptions aren’t always founded in fact. This insightful, succinct analysis provides a refreshing “au contraire” on a federal-state program in South Dakota that has produced big returns.”

2ND – Carey Gillam, Thomson Reuters — “Super weeds pose growing threat to U.S. crops’’

Judge: “A decade of benefits from genetically engineered crops capable of tolerating glyphosate herbicides has, as predicted, produced a generation of weeds that are resistant to them too. In two thoughtful pages, this analysis explains the current dilemma and casts an eye to the future and farmers’ never ending war with weeds.”

3RD – Karl Plume, Thomson Reuters — “US corn export dominance to bend, not break’’

Judge: “As U.S. corn growers scramble to meet the growing demand for ethanol, we’re still learning about the unintended consequences of  programs promoting crop-based fuels. This analysis makes it disturbingly clear that, amid growing domestic demand and international competition, U.S. exports of corn are one of the casualties.”


  • Phyllis Griekspoor,  Kansas Farmer –  “Would you trade your GPS for a cell phone signal?”  Judge: “A clear-headed look at what promises to be another Faustian bargain – the looming conflict between a new way of delivering broadband services to rural areas and the time-honored benefits of the global positioning system.”
  • Urban Lehner,   DTN/The Progressive Farmer –  “Want fries with that regulation?”  Judge: “A delightful tongue-in-cheek commentary on the dubious merits of making school lunches conform to current nutritional guidelines. Once-a week French fries, sure. But don’t throw out the peas, lima beans and corn.”


Judged by Louise Seals

Judge’s remarks about the category: “The projects entered in this category present a body of work commendable for its breadth of topics, depth of reporting and research, and excellent explanatory writing. No topic seemed too complex or daunting, and I applaud the reporters and their editors for their willingness to devote the resources to tackle these projects and to tell them well. These are excellent examples of what journalists do better than anyone else: research, synthesize and then tell the story. Judging this category was a pleasure.”

1ST -Gregg Hillyer, Tom Dodge, Susan K. Davis and Charles Johnson DTN/The Progressive Farmer — “Unlock the secrets of soil”

Judge: “Outstanding science writing with everyday applications to the livelihoods of the publication’s audience. I kept coming back to this package and finding another gem of a sentence or example, such as: ‘Soil pits shed new light on the mysteries of the underground.’ Or this: ‘Scientists using new DNA techniques are identifying previously undiscovered microbes almost daily. Figuring out what they do is not so easy.’ The writer had made it easy, though, for readers to understand how the discoveries could affect their farming and finances by reporting numerous examples, opinions and hypotheses to make the issues clear.”

2ND – Gregg Hillyer, Charles Johnson, Barb Baylor Anderson, Jim Patrico, Tom Dodge, Des Keller and Marcia Zarley Taylor DTN/ — The Progressive Farmer  “Agriculture’s Greatest Challenge”

Judge: “This investigation of predicted global food needs and what they mean for U.S. farmers demanded extensive and wide-ranging reporting and then a disciplined approach to storytelling. But “disciplined” does not mean “dull,” and this skilled reporter proved to be a talented writer. The gee-whiz facts and mind-boggling predictions are never allowed to overwhelm the goal of helping readers understand how they could be affected.

3RD – Chris Clayton and Katie Micik, DTN/The Progressive Farmer — “Cutting into Conservation”

Judge: “Thoughtful organization of articles and skilled writing keep the reader moving through this potential snoozer of a topic. The writer keeps a tight rein on quotations, using them to truly advance the story but without confusing brevity and usefulness. Well-crafted transitions contribute to pacing and understanding. One gets the impression this reporter knows the subject backwards and forwards, and may even have personal experience with some of the issues.


  • Gil Gullickson, Successful Farming — “Corn high yield team”
  • Dan Miller, DTN/The Progressive Farmer — “America’s best young farmers and ranchers”
  • Linda Smith and Marcia Zarley Taylor, DTN/The Progressive Farmer — “A new marketing era”
  • Cheryl Tevis, Successful Farming — “A first-rate farm business”


Judged by Pat Waters, retired business editor of the Omaha World-Herald.

Anthony Schick, Columbia Missourian- University of Missouri –  “Mississippi River town of Pinhook struggles to reclaim its community after levee break”

Judge’s comment: “The writer dexterously weaves information and data about the flood and rebuilding efforts with the history of Pinhook and its residents. The result is a strong, readable narrative rich in detail — for example, the description of the Baptist church after the floodwaters receded. This is not a story that the reporter “phoned in.” It obviously is the result of myriad interviews, historical research and visits to Pinhook and to the homes of its former residents. Well done indeed!”

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