20 questions with… The best ag journalist. Ever.

Leesa Zalesky is an editor’s dream. Her writing is clean. Her research is meticulous. Her sources are credible. She always meets her deadline, and when she submits her work for editing, it rarely needs any. Best of all, in a world filled with writers clamoring to submit fluffy feature pieces, Leesa Zalesky isn’t afraid to tackle the real news. Legal case to unravel? Send Leesa. Producer organization gone rogue? Leesa’s your gal. Government agency smelling of corruption? Let Leesa sniff it out.

I had the privilege to work closely with Leesa for three years while I sat in the editor’s chair at Agri-News, today publishing as the Western Ag Reporter.  Leesa saved my bacon many a time, lending her advice on subjects like who to trust, who to watch, when to hold a story, and when to rip apart a front page a half hour before deadline to fit in late-breaking news.  And, like the mother she is, she was always patient and understanding with me when I whined about the tough stuff.

There exists the reality that Leesa’s byline on the front page just plain adds a great deal of tenability to a publication. I always felt a little safer, as we worked in plain view of public scrutiny, with Leesa on my side.

Leesa and our fellow writer, Susan Metcalf (who needs no introduction, am I right?), have both been appreciated champions of my blogging efforts. I like to tell the two of them that I will always, despite my fondness for current WAR editor Linda Grosskopf (who has literally worked circles around me in the newspaper business), think of Leesa and Susan as the Heart & Soul of the paper they both write for weekly.  Leesa, on the front page, reports on the subjects that make up the very lifeblood of the ag industry; Susan, in her cooking column, serves up soul food.  And overseeing it all, Lady Grosskopf, who handles with a grace I never could master the fact that she is a household name throughout much of the West.

Maybe someday when my kids are all grown up there will be a writer’s retreat for me and those three ladies.

But for now, with miles of wintry roads stretching between us, we connect online.  So, without further ado, sit down with me for a visit with my friend Leesa… one of the elite minds in ag journalism today.

© Tami Blake

 

#1:  Hi, Leesa!  First off — tell me where you came from and where you are today.

LZ:  I’m going to steal part of a line from my favorite television movie of all time, Lonesome Dove:  I was born and raised in a little bitty fart of a town in South Dakota named Reliance.  It’s about 16 miles west of the Missouri River on Interstate 90. My maternal grandparents established the Karlen Ranch north of Reliance. They were ranchers, and my mother was raised on their ranch. My paternal grandparents were farmers, also north of Reliance. So, I’m a result of farmer-rancher crossbreeding. Today I live in Laramie, Wyoming, where my husband works for the University of Wyoming.

 

#2:  How long have you been writing for the Western Ag Reporter? Where else has your byline appeared through the years?

LZ:  I started writing for Western Livestock Reporter, which, together with Agri-News, was the predecessor of Western Ag Reporter, about 1996 or 1997, I think. I had a young son at the time, and I was determined to find a way to be a stay-at-home mom after spending too much time working at an all-consuming job outside the home and missing so many important parts of his formative years. My mom took care of him while I worked that job, and I remember so clearly how I felt when she called me at work to tell me he had taken his first steps. I made up my mind right then and there that, just as soon as I could manage it, I would be working from home.

The better story is how I started writing for the publication. Somehow, some way, I don’t remember exactly how, someone introduced me to a man named George Levine, who lived in Sturgis, SD. George was a central figure in what became known as the Bray Case, where a group of cattle producers filed a class action lawsuit against national grocery retailers for beef price collusion. George and his wife invited me over for coffee one afternoon, and I was stunned when I went into their house. For decades George had kept meticulous graphs of retail beef prices as compared to live cattle prices. His graphs were everywhere in the house… on easels and taped to the walls of his office. I spent several hours with him while he explained his work and how he became a plaintiff in that very important case. We pored over all of his paperwork, court documents, and old photo albums, and I listened to his stories about the case totally enraptured. I went home, where I had an office of sorts, and started writing from the notes I had taken. From that, my very first investigative story, “The Bray Case,” was born. When I was finally done, I had an amazing piece, but it was INCREDIBLY long. I was so proud of it, and I was so certain it would be my breakthrough into the journalism business. Clearly drowning in my naiveté, I started contacting industry publications about it to see who wanted to buy it and publish it. I figured they’d all be vying for a chance at my Pulitzer-winning piece. Wow, those rejections were really awful; they just kept piling up. I was so tender back then. It was my first really hard lesson in beef industry politics. Those publications weren’t rejecting me because of price or length—it was all about controlling the message.

In the meantime, Chuck Rightmire, who was editor of Western Livestock Reporter at the time, figured out that I was a fledgling writer, and he asked me to start covering the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) for the paper. I finally worked up the nerve to offer Chuck “The Bray Case.” He really wanted to purchase the publishing rights, but I had a price on it that I was stubbornly clinging to because of the sheer work and time I had put into it and, I’ll admit, all those rejections had pissed me off to a point where I just wasn’t going to lower my price. Not even for Chuck. Not even if it never saw newsprint.

Lo and behold, a sassy email popped into my inbox from the redheaded editor of Agri-News, Linda Grosskopf, whom I had never met and knew nothing about. She demanded to know where Chuck had found me and why the hell I wasn’t writing for her paper, too, and said she was insulted that I had never approached her with my work. It was a breathtakingly earthy email… as most who know Linda will understand. So I replied and said, if she was interested, I just happened to have a pretty terrific piece about a pretty important lawsuit that had a pretty big impact on the cattle industry, but I warned her that it was lengthy, and I also gave her my price. She said she was headed to the hairdresser and wanted to read it while she was having her hair done, so I sent it on. She emailed me back later that day and said that she and Chuck would jointly meet my price and that they would split it into pieces and run it as a series instead of publishing the whole thing in one week. It was a brilliant solution. And so it was finally published, and it did, indeed, become my breakthrough.

George Levine and the other cattlemen plaintiffs won their suit, and they were awarded an enormous judgment. The case was appealed, of course, by the retailers. On appeal, the verdict was overturned because of a little-known case called “Illinois Brick,” which involved a group of masons in Illinois who sued masonry retailers for price collusion. The “Illinois Brick” plaintiffs lost their case because the courts found that, in a supply chain industry, the masons could only sue the next link in the chain—the middleman or wholesalers in other words—and they could not jump a link in the chain and directly sue the retailers. “Illinois Brick” set legal precedent for litigation in supply chain industries and the courts overturned the Bray Case on that basis.

When my story about the Bray Case was published, Congress was undertaking debate and holding hearings about antitrust issues in the beef and cattle industry. My story became part of the permanent congressional record when it was submitted as testimony during those hearings because of its impeccable depiction of the facts. I’m very proud of that. I still consider that series my signature work.

 
#3:  I’m amazed by your determination to break into ag journalism.  Work ethic doesn’t seem to be an issue for you; in addition to meeting weekly newspaper deadlines, you’re also an EMT, and you work for heart doctors. How do you make all those worlds mesh?

LZ:  It all seems to work out, strangely enough. My work in cardiology is part-time, and I’ve now retired from running on ambulances, teaching emergency medical services, and working in emergency departments as an EMT.  I love what I do, so the time of day that I do it doesn’t matter to me. People might be surprised to know that I do my best work in my pajamas and slippers at around 5 a.m.

 

#4:  Your favorite way to unwind after a long day?

LZ:  A hot bath, candles, and a glass of Crown on ice. Sometimes I get really decadent and dip a piece of dark chocolate in the Crown, but that’s pretty rare because, as I’ve aged, I’ve had to focus hard on maintaining my weight. I try to stay on a no carb-no sugar plan. It’s important to note here that there are zero carbs in Crown, believe it or not.

 

#5:  What books would you recommend I read?

LZ:  Without question you should get your hands on Grass Beyond the Mountains:  Discovering the Last Great Cattle Frontier by James P. Hobson. That book—along with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged—has been Linda Grosskopf’s No. 1 read since the late 1970s, and she recommends it with enthusiasm. It’s actually the first of a trilogy that Hobson wrote about settling and bringing cattle into western Canada during the 1930s. The other two books in the trilogy are just as good: Nothing Too Good For A Cowboy and The Rancher Takes A Wife.  You’ll love them all, and I think Beau would as well.

 

#6:  I’ve actually read (and laughed my way through) the Hobson books.  Loved them!  I need to get copies for our family bookshelf.  And a friend of mine, a true student of literature, has been trying to get me to read Ayn Rand since high school.  I couldn’t muster it back then… but maybe I better try again.  So, I’m curious… when did you first know you were a writer?

LZ:  It’s all my mother’s fault. While I was still very young, she encouraged me to read everything; she always had books or newspapers in front of me, and we always watched Walter Cronkite together. At suppertime, my siblings and I were expected to know something about current events of the day and be able to discuss them intelligently. And from a very young age, I was encouraged by Mom to write my own things with paper and pencil. She enrolled me in summer reading programs and took me to the state library in Pierre, where I’d get lost in the book stacks. Her sister, my aunt, was a secretary for years to the South Dakota State Librarian, so I had an “in” there. I loved those trips to the library. Mom was very proud when I became a published writer, and until she died, I could always count on my mom to be my most avid reader. One of the last things she said she wanted me to do was write a children’s book, which I’d like to do, but I’m still looking for someone who can illustrate it for me. So if you know any up-and-coming artists willing to take a chance with me…

 

 

#7:  I’m looking for the same because I always have a children’s book in the back of my own mind!  I would be very interested to read a children’s book by Leesa Zalesky… or maybe you should come up with a pen name for this new adventure?  Anyhow, I’ll be on the lookout for an artist.  So… have you ever written about anything other than agriculture? Was it difficult for you to find the correct outlet for your writing ability?

LZ:  No, it wasn’t difficult at all to find my lane. I was born and raised in agriculture; it’s what I know. And yes, I’ve written some other things outside that world, but that’s never as satisfying for me.  I am interested in developing some travel pieces for the Reporter at some point. That might seem a little off in left field, but it’s really not. Folks in agriculture travel, too, and I think they’d be interested in ideas, tips, and information about travel destinations.

 

#8:  You’ve been writing about agriculture from the inside out for a couple decades now. If you could tell the average consumer, the average citizen of our county, one thing everyone should know about U.S. agriculture today, what would it be?

LZ:  The first thing is that they MUST demand country of origin labeling for the beef they buy. It’s not only in their best interest, but what’s more patriotic than putting a U.S. label on beef raised by American ranchers?

 

#9:  What are your favorite sources for breaking news?

LZ:  I’m wild about Twitter these days. I use it all the time. I like Twitter because I can control my Twitter universe by choosing who and what I follow for news and information. I have no time in my life for fake news, political bullying, or crappy reporting, and I’m running out of patience with social media outlets like Facebook, which I think have fostered the fake news tsunami we’ve all been subjected to for the past 15 months.

 

#10:  I know you love hard news.  But you must have a soft spot for horses.  I’ve noticed you’ll occasionally put together a human interest story dealing with the horseracing industry.

LZ:  I’ve always been a Thoroughbred and horse racing/performance horse enthusiast. Again, that’s my mother’s influence. Most of her friends and a lot of her family didn’t know that she was a hell of a hand with horses. Her father, my granddad, paid for most of their ranch in South Dakota by breaking horses and teams and selling those, especially when times got tough during the Depression and Dust Bowl years. She was his right hand. It must be in our bloodstream because my son now lives and works in Lexington, KY for the Mayo Clinic of equine hospitals. I’m terribly jealous of that.

 

#11:  Leesa, what would you say is the biggest issue facing agriculture internationally?

LZ:  Trade. It’s an enormously complex issue, but it’s critical that farmers and ranchers inform themselves about those complexities so they can represent their interests appropriately and ensure that their organizations are as well. With that said, there are some tremendous experts out there who can speak at functions about trade issues, and in my opinion, every state cattle group should have a trade presentation at every convention or conference. International trade issues are very fluid – because trade is a moving target – so having the best experts come and present the latest information is very important. All of us should have a fundamental understanding of tariffs, tariff rate quotas, phytosanitary and animal health standards, and so on.

 

#12:  Quickly, name five other issues every U.S. agriculturalist today should care about.

LZ:  Apathy, apathy, apathy, apathy, and apathy. I see apathy as agriculture’s biggest issue, and I’m not kidding. We’re all busy—but none more so than others. If agriculture, particularly the cattle industry, is to survive and thrive for the next generations to inherit, then the current generation has got to become meaningfully engaged. That means making the time to show up at meetings and make phone calls to lawmakers. Organizations are a tool by which the masses can come together and speak in unity, but most cattle groups these days are suffering from lack of membership. And trust me on this: lawmakers HAVE to hear from their constituents, or they’ll simply cave in to lobbyists hired by the opposition, which is typically well-funded and very powerful. This is the primary reason we’ve lost on so many issues of critical importance:  we simply got outworked and outgunned. Ranchers need to stop underestimating the power of their voice, their vote, and a simple phone call.

 

#13:  Say, why are there three different national organizations for cattle producers?

LZ:  I want to be careful with this because I have friends in all three of the organizations I think you’re referencing. When the old National Cattlemen’s Association merged with the meat board back in the mid-1990s, ranchers’ voices were diluted significantly. Ranchers’ interests are different from those of the feeder or the packer, and a lot of the time the three segments are diametrically opposed. That’s only natural when you have a supply chain with segments that are economically hostile to one another. Putting them all under the same umbrella organization (NCBA) without mechanisms in place to ensure that one segment was as equally powerful as the other was, in my mind, a mistake.  R-CALF was born with the Canadian trade (dumping) cases, and when those cases concluded, the organization went on to try and fill the need for an organization that would advocate solely for ranchers—unlike NCBA, which tries to represent those three segments.  U.S. Cattlemen’s Association came along next, looking to expand the representation of ranchers in Washington, DC by opening offices there and facilitating communication and the flow of information between ranching country and policy-makers. Unfortunately, the three groups are often at odds with one another on issues, and that sends a mixed message from the overall industry to lawmakers, who then just respond to the lobbying forces with the most power and influence. NCBA has a well-heeled political action committee, and they spread their graft around in very effective places. The other two groups have resisted forming PACs based on, I think, the thought process that they shouldn’t have to buy a politician’s favor or access. It’s a noble principle, but that ain’t how the sausage is made in the swamp.

 

#14:  Well put.  So with your insider’s knowledge and your ability to lay the truth out in one paragraph, I already know the answer to this question:  Have you ever made anybody mad over something you wrote?

LZ:  Yes, I sure have. I’ve angered some state beef council execs along with some folks at the national checkoff level over the years, to say nothing of a long line of NCBA leaders and some federal agency people. I’ve learned that a nice little FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request is pretty effective at correcting rude behavior. I’ve been called some interesting things by indignant politicians from time to time. (I particularly enjoy those phone calls.) I’ve been sued in an effort to force me to reveal my sources, and I prevailed in that lawsuit. I’ve also had to have my attorney fire a warning shot when things got a little too personal for my taste. He’s a brilliant lawyer, a Montana rancher, and he doesn’t believe in taking hostages.  So, yeah, I’ve been around the block a time or two, but life has a way of putting calluses on the body’s soft spots. Hopefully I’ve managed to please more people than I’ve angered.

 

#15:  Definitely.  You’re a hero in cow country.  Speaking of cows, do you eat organic or non? Grass-fed or corn fed?

LZ:  Corn-fed always. We buy our beef locally to ensure it’s U.S. produced. I don’t pay a lot of attention to organic except with eggs. I always buy the truly cage-free, organically-fed-hen eggs. It’s a thing with me – a remnant from when I had my own laying flock. The meat manager at Safeway sighs when he sees me coming because I scrutinize the seafood case (seafood is still identified with country of origin labeling) and I complain incessantly that I can’t find fresh U.S. salmon, cod, halibut, or shellfish. I refuse to buy foreign-farmed fish or seafood. I’ve found that, if you raise a big-enough stink at the grocery meat case, a crowd of other consumers gathers and listens intently to the discussion, and they start asking questions of their own. And they really raise their eyebrows when I tell them they have no idea if the beef in their cart is from outside the U.S.  So, I raise hell at the meat case every chance I get. It’s my self-designed consumer education effort. It drives the meat man crazy.

 

#16:  I hope somebody gets a video of you raising hell at the meat case someday and that it goes viral on YouTube!  Ha!  What’s one thing you would like for readers to know about your job as an ag journalist?

LZ:  I worry about the future of my craft. I don’t see a lot of young’uns coming into this business, and by that I mean writers who are willing to do the hard work of poking, probing, and researching issues of critical importance to the producers at ground zero – the growers.  Lee Pitts, Alan Guebert, and I often joke that we’re a little thin at the bench.  Look, the work of an effective journalist includes making some people uncomfortable, because they’re being held accountable or because their work is being scrutinized. You can’t be afraid of hostility in this business. You can’t be friends with everyone and not everyone is going to love you. If you’re held hostage by your own inhibitions about how people feel about you, then you really do need to find a different line of work, because you won’t do justice to the job.  Unfortunately, I think that’s a big part of why we aren’t seeing the younger generation jumping into the mix. I also think some of the younger generation who think they want to get into ag journalism have preconceived notions about how easy and/or glamorous the work is and what the compensation should be for newborn writers.  They should see me on Monday mornings at 5 a.m., because it ain’t glamorous. It’s tough work – you have to have a passion for it, and you’ve gotta pay your dues in order to earn the respect of readers, but the rewards of doing so are enormous. For females, it’s daunting — and it was especially so 20 years ago when I started out. I was really fortunate to have the strength, support and integrity of Pat Goggins, the late publisher of Western Ag Reporter, behind me.

We need to think about all of this and figure out how to bring more of us on line, because Lee, Alan and I are getting a little long in the tooth. I think we should consider developing some solutions — like paid internships for students graduating with ag communications, English, or journalism degrees so they get to experience news production and management and come to understand that the job entails a lot more than they were taught in school. In that process maybe some will become addicted to the smell of newsprint and ink.

 
#17:  What’s one thing you would like for readers to know about your job as an EMT?

LZ:  This one’s easy: EMTs and firefighters are saints. Seventy-five percent or more of them across this country are volunteers. For God’s sake, recognize them, thank them every chance you get, donate to your local department, get involved by serving on your local fire and emergency boards, and support them in any way you can.

 
#18:  What’s your favorite way to read the paper you write for when it comes in the mail?

LZ:  Coffee in hand at my desk with a highlighter so I can tell Linda when I find an editing error (grin).

 

#19:  Your favorite time of day?

LZ:  That really quiet time around 5 a.m. when I watch the news and check my Twitter feed… or that time in the early evening when my husband comes home and we have a cocktail while we’re fixing supper together and talk about our day.

 
#20:  Have you flopped on any resolutions yet this year?

LZ:  Not yet, but mine will take some time to prove up on. One of my resolutions is to start a weekly quote invitational in my standing column in WAR.  We’ll see if readers engage in it by sending in their own. I guess whether I flop or succeed at it is in readers’ hands. I have also resolved to live my life this year by the quote: “Before speaking, use these filters: is it true? is it necessary? is it kind?” It’s my belief that this old world could use a whole lot more kindness these days.

Tami Blake:  Thank you, dear Leesa, for your service to our industry and for taking the time to visit with me.  You’re an inspiration!

Leesa -- Doug, Leesa, Sam.jpg

(Leesa Zalesky with husband Doug and son Sam)

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