Pamela Cole Smith: Dedicated Chronicler of Agriculture and Farm Life

As an agricultural journalist, Smith is dedicated to helping growers solve problems.
Pam Smith
Pamela Cole Smith recalls the date with great clarity: June 23, 1972.

On that day, in the summer before her senior year of high school, President Richard Nixon signed into law Title IX, which prohibited federally funded educational institutions from discriminating against students and staff based on sex. It was the key she needed to enroll in general agriculture classes and become a member of FFA, both opportunities that had been previously denied to women by the local school board.

Not long after, she headed to the University of Illinois, where the beginnings of her future career began to take hold. Smith became a communications major, wrote for the university’s ag newspaper, and when she graduated, had multiple offers to work in agricultural journalism. A few women were working in the industry at the time, she recalls, but field editor positions for women were rare.

“I took two weeks off to help my dad with a sheep sale, and then I went off to work. I love people who farm for a living. I love talking with them,” she says, before admitting that even after 40 years in the business of reporting on agriculture, the words don’t always come easy. “I don’t necessarily like the writing process. It’s hard for me because I want to convey so much.”

“You don’t have to pick a traditional route. But I’m a firm believer that if you are a good writer, you will always have work.”

Pam Smith
By any measure, Smith has had a resoundingly successful career, working with a number of top-tier ag publications, including the Illinois Prairie Farmer, Farm Journal and Top Producer. She has won bushels of writing and reporting awards, although it’s one of her very first honors that she remembers most fondly.

She was awarded the Greenhand Degree for her senior year participation in FFA—an honor typically reserved for the outstanding freshman chapter member.

“I keep that plaque right by my desk,” she says.

Agricultural Know-How

Today, Smith works as crops technology editor for The Progressive Farmer and DTN. She is responsible for overseeing national crops coverage of corn, soybeans, cotton, wheat and rice. She writes and edits stories, takes photographs, and maintains a crops blog from her home in Decatur, Illinois, which serves as her office, when she’s not in her car or in the field.

If it has to do with agriculture, Smith has probably written about it. She has delved deep into the economics of rural life, particularly as it pertains to succession planning within farm families. Her body of work includes poignant reminiscences of growing up on an Illinois farm, as well as technical writing on the intricacies of pesticide labeling and the battles against crop disease.

#Ag journalist @PamSmithDTN dedicates her career to helping growers solve problems.

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Smith’s writing has garnered praise far beyond the world of farm magazines. In 2006, her series on soybean rust won the Jesse H. Neal Grand Neal Award, the top prize in business-to-business journalism.

This required that she attend an upscale New York cocktail reception. While there, a stranger struck up a conversation, which quickly turned to that year’s top award. “She said to me, ‘Can you believe they gave it to someone who writes about soybeans?’” Smith laughs at the memory now, but understands that not everyone carries her devotion to agriculture, even if the industry is so incredibly important.

“We’re service journalists,” she says. “We’re trying to help people solve problems and make the lives of farmers and farm families better.”

Her passion for that work has not waned. In 2011, she won the Grand Neal Award again as part of a team of Farm Journal writers chronicling the issues associated with transferring the farm between generations.

A Clear Future

As a child, Smith would climb into her family’s hayloft to commit her deepest thoughts to a diary. Modern teenagers may carry touch-screen tablets into their secret hiding places, but Smith says the sentiment is the same.

Social media, video and podcasts have augmented newspapers and magazines, but the underlying skills needed to succeed in journalism haven’t changed all that much. For young people looking to enter the profession, Smith offers a bit of advice: “You don’t have to pick a traditional route. But I’m a firm believer that if you are a good writer, you will always have work.”

Coming from someone who hasn’t been without a deadline since 1977, that is sound wisdom.