By Betsy Freese, Successful Farming, 2004 AAEA President
I’m moving to a new house after three decades in an old farmhouse, so I have been cleaning out my attic. I have several boxes of AAEA material up there, and when I was asked to write this column I started sorting through the folders. It’s hard to summarize 36 years of involvement in this wonderful organization, but I will try.
I joined Successful Farming fresh out of college in 1984 as the assistant swine editor. I was 21. At that time, AAEA was evolving from a “boozy, schmoozy group” and a “Good Ol’ Boys Club,” according to other editors here. I couldn’t wait to join.
The year 1984 for AAEA has since gone down in history as The Flame. There was a near revolt by members objecting to commercial sponsorship of the meetings. They felt ethics were compromised. A core group of editors helped put the organization on the track it is today, with emphasis on professional improvement.
At the 1985 annual meeting in Chicago there was contentious discussion of advertorials, and a Code of Ethics was adopted. The AAEA Professional Improvement Foundation was founded. I quickly volunteered for several committees and got to know editors from competing publications.
In 1987, the annual meeting was at the Minnesota Marriott. I learned never to leave valuables in my hotel room. While I was at breakfast, all my traveler’s checks were stolen from my suitcase (that was before I had a credit card). The Minnesota Twins won the World Series while we were there and the city went wild. We all celebrated in the streets, singing and dancing. One guy jumped on the roof of a cab and stripped in front of us. That was as much excitement as ag journalists could handle.
I volunteered to be chairperson of the 1989 Communications Clinic, the new name for our fall meeting, held in Milwaukee. Willie Vogt and I invited TV anchor Maury Povich to speak about this new thing called reality TV. Povich told our membership to “find the personal element in every story.” While the clinic overall was praised for its quality, several members wrote scathing letters to the organization and to my bosses criticizing Povich. “What in the world could we ever learn from a broadcast journalist?” asked one. To top it off, I was seven months pregnant with my second child during that 1989 meeting. My feet were swollen and I was exhausted, but I had a great time.
That was also the year I was elected to the AAEA board of directors. Sara Wyant and I were the only women. After our first board meeting, one of the seasoned gentlemen who attended wrote a long letter to my bosses and a dozen other people saying that a young woman should not speak her mind and give opinions as I did so freely.
Loren Kruse and Gene Johnston, my bosses at SF, told me to ignore the letter and keep speaking up. I learned a lot from them, and from Sara, about ignoring naysayers and critics. The tide was changing for membership.
Speaking of membership, that committee kept me busy for many years. Kelly Schwalbe and I figured out creative ways to increase membership each year. Before the 2008 Ag Media Summit in Tampa, Florida, I threw out a challenge to the membership. If we beat our record I would dress up like Amy Winehouse (she was alive and rocking then). We did and I did. The AAEA annual meeting was at 7:30 a.m. that morning, so I was a shocking sight at breakfast.
I have made so many good friends through AAEA. It is truly a blessing to get to know not only your colleagues but also your competitors and industry professionals in a business. This world of agricultural communications may be unique that way. We care about each other.
Get involved, volunteer, attend meetings, and have fun. AAEA has had a strong professional influence on my career and I am so grateful to be a part of it.