LOOKING SOUTH FOR ANSWERS
Six days, six flights, 10,000 miles. A group of exhausted ag editors from the U.S., loaded with
interviews and pictures. All to help inform growers back home.
This wasn't business as usual. It wasn't about which country was tops in one commodity or another, or what challenges may lie ahead in the world market. It was about fighting a common foe, and growers helping one another, half a world away.
On a whirlwind tour, Syngenta Crop Protection led a group of ag editors, a Syngenta media specialist, a brave photographer and me, the public relations account manager, through Brazil on an educational mission about Asian soybean rust. It was an experience none of us will soon forget.
Unexpected and feared, Asian soybean rust swept into the United States for the first time in November 2004, carried on the winds of Hurricane Ivan. This fast-acting and economically crippling disease from South America became a leading concern of soybean growers across the United States. Brazil held some of the answers.
The major fungicide manufacturers had already gained two growing seasons' worth of experience coping with the disease in Brazil. Growers there had learned how to control soybean rust and make a profit in spite of it.
As a leading fungicide manufacturer in the United States and abroad, Syngenta Crop Protection managers seized the initiative in helping to alert the U.S. soybean grower. "We wanted to provide growers with knowledge about the disease, to ensure that the lessons learned in Brazil were used as building blocks in the U.S.," says Kim Dawson, head of marketing services, Syngenta. "From our associates in South America, we were learning quickly how devastating soybean rust can be. We were also finding that we had excellent fungicide solutions available."
Syngenta looked to Gibbs & Soell (G&S), its public relations agency, to develop a campaign to help educate U.S. growers about soybean rust, as well as to provide outreach about research the company had performed in Brazil on the disease. Keeping these goals in mind, we developed the idea of a media trip to Brazil as one part of the campaign.
"The objectives of the trip are fundamental to effective media relations in this market: provide the editors with a meaningful learning experience; coordinate interviews with knowledgeable sources; and let them research and tell their own stories," says Bob Bowman, G&S senior vice president. "Ag producers want worldwide coverage, especially when it is relevant to their farm operation, and they want it from editors they trust."
"Our role was to help the media get to a position where they could do their jobs, their way. The company has a vested interest in the story, yes, but in this case Syngenta was in a unique position to share valuable in-field experience that could benefit U.S. soybean growers. The best way to reach the growers was through the media."
THE RACE IS ON
Due to the earlier-than-expected arrival of soybean rust in the U.S., preparedness for the disease was limited. Time could be running out. As frost nipped the patches of kudzu in the South that harbored the first spores of soybean rust in the U.S., Brazilian growers were planting their soybean crop and waiting to see if soybean rust would hit them once again.
Developing this international undertaking proved daunting and required an intense coordination effort between G&S and Syngenta — both in the U.S. and Brazil. As I focused on media liaison and planning, Mike Vanausdeln, corporate communications manager for Syngenta, coordinated with his counterparts in Brazil to set up in-country logistics. Steve Werblow, veteran freelance editor and photographer, was tapped for support and to serve as team photographer assigned to capture publication-quality disease photos for use by the media and in future educational materials.
As March approached, Brazil found itself in the middle of a severe drought that diminished the threat of soybean rust in some areas. Taking dry conditions into consideration, Syngenta pinpointed the final destination — the state of Parana, an area of Brazil that had dealt with soybean rust and has a climate similar to that of the Midwest.
That created some challenges. Parana farmers were the best sources for American editors — they had experience with soybean rust and farmed in conditions that U.S. audiences could relate to. But the extent of disease infestation in the area turned out to be low in 2005, so arrangements were hastily made for our photographer to break off from the group and travel to one of Syngenta's Brazilian research facilities, and more remote growing areas, where he could capture images of decimated fields and severe symptoms of rust in various stages. That way, the team could have their cake and eat it, too.
Arriving in Sao Paulo, Brazil, we immediately regrouped for five days of travel to interview growers and researchers experienced with soybean rust. The group woke early to head to the airport, boarding a plane to the Brazilian state of Parana, in the southwestern corner of Brazil. For days, we watched green, rolling hills with rows of vibrant crops and quaint towns dotting the landscape pass by the bus windows like pictures out of 20th century Midwest America. Along the way we spoke with growers and retailers who looked as though they belonged right here in the U.S., but culturally, couldn't be further apart. Yet one common link connected these growers to one another — preparing for soybean rust.
During the trip, we visited five growers and a retailer who represented farms ranging from 1,000 to 10,000 acres. All growers shared a common theme — spray preventively with a triazole/strobilurin fungicide combination to control Asian soybean rust.
• A visit with Olavo Correa da Silva, a name recognized by many of the group as one of the leading researchers of soybean rust. We were able to walk his research plots at Fundacao ABC, a private research firm that serves three large Brazilian cooperatives. Silva left us with the following words of wisdom: "In Brazil, we say that knowledge is more important than technology."
• Albertino Perez, farm manager for the Alberti farm in Tibaji County, manages 12,500 acres, 70 percent of which is soybeans. He discussed the importance of nozzle selection, spray pressure and proper fungicide application for control of soybean rust. Perez explained that rust works from the bottom of the plant up, so fungicide application reaching below the canopy is critical.
• Richard Djkstra, a grower in Ponta Grossa County, wowed our group with his English as well as his innovative farming practices. The son of the grower who pioneered no-till farming in Brazil in the 1970's, Djkstra carries on the legacy. Stretched across 2,250 acres with the threat of fast-acting rust at every turn-row, Djkstra stressed how critical it is to monitor the disease by scouting.
The editors experienced the kind of trip that could only be arranged with the help of a solid network in-country. They had the opportunity to cover Brazil's experience with soybean rust up-close and in-person. They came home with bags packed with notes, photos from Parana, supplemental photos from the team photographer's side trip to Mato Grosso, and pockets full of contacts they can draw upon for future coverage of Brazil and rust.
The trip yielded more than 15 articles over the course of several months and established valuable relationship building opportunities among Syngenta, G&S, and leading editors in the ag industry. Most important, everyone walked away from the trip with knowledge that could not have been gained back home — first-hand experience with a disease that hadn't yet emerged in commercial fields in the U.S. — and an eagerness to share that knowledge with their readers.
The trip was deemed a success by editors and Syngenta. "The trip was about providing the media with knowledge to better prepare soybean growers," says Dawson. "The articles and material that resulted from the trip were all from the perspective of the editors and relayed worthwhile information to help U.S. growers learn from their Brazilian counterparts. We feel we accomplished our objectives — to serve American growers, help U.S. ag editors get up to speed on soybean rust, and establish Syngenta as a credible and helpful source of information on rust for future stories."