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Tom Zwainz, left, and his son Joel Zwainz harvest wheat on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018, at their farm in Reardan, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Rob Curley: Ag series turns into more than we could’ve expected; book to be released in December

There are moments that tell you when you’re home.

A career in newspapers has taken me all over this nation, with stops on both coasts and even a desert city filled with neon. They were all interesting places to live, but never truly felt like home.

I grew up in a small town in Kansas, surrounded by farmland. That was always how home looked in my mind and felt in my heart. It was the sort of place where people waved at you when you passed them in your car. Or in your truck.

And nothing was as beautiful as the sun falling behind a wheat field.

A couple of years ago, we were headed to Pullman to watch a Cougar football game. We were listening to the pregame show on the radio, just like I used to do when I was a kid back in Kansas.

That was the first time I saw the rolling fields of the Palouse. Then, somewhere around Colfax, the driver of an oncoming car waved at us. It didn’t take much longer to realize that Eastern Washington might be home.

Like all places, there’s typically a big difference between how the locals view their communities versus how the rest of the world views them. It was that very idea that set up one of The Spokesman-Review’s most in-depth series in our newspaper’s 135-year-history: “A Year in the Fields.”

Long before Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks or Amazon, Washington was known for its world-class agriculture. Apple orchards and waving wheat fields. Hops for the finest beers and potatoes perfect for your favorite french fries.

Most of the world now sees our state very differently – the home of high-tech, high-flying jets and highly caffeinated beverages. Yet, agriculture still is very much at the heart of what makes Washington what it is.

Our soil, weather and irrigation allows farmers and orchardists to grow many types of crops, from blueberries, onions and tulips, to asparagus, oysters and wine grapes. The diversity makes Washington one of our nation’s most important farming states.

But what is the health of the Washington farm and farmer?

Finding that answer would be the point of our entire series.

When we first started planning for it in the winter of 2017, a year seemed like plenty of time to try to learn as much as we could about the state of the Washington farmer and tell our readers all about it. It wasn’t.

The series formally ran in our paper’s pages from April of 2017 until this fall. Even now, we’re not exactly sure we’re done telling these important stories.

The changing technology. The politics and trade. The actual farms worked by real families. Along with fears and uncertainties, we also found hope, courage and pride.

Over the past two years, no piece of journalism in our newspaper has elicited more reaction from our readers than this series has. The stories. The photos. The graphics and illustrations. The design. They all came together to touch people.

Along the way, it always seemed like we were getting asked if we had ever thought of turning “A Year in the Fields” into a book.

Just as we were in the initial planning for this agriculture series, the Gonzaga basketball team was at the end of its magical Final Four season. When a team is having the kind of season that the Zags had that year, a whole bunch of different book companies begin calling the local newspaper to see if it might be interested in publishing a book about the team.

That totally happened to us.

We eventually decided to work with a company called Pediment, which is based here in the Pacific Northwest, to publish our “Making History” book based on the Bulldogs’ remarkable 2016-2017 season.

The book turned out to be both beautiful and popular.

This past summer, we turned the tables and reached out to Pediment to see if they might be interested in helping us publish a book based on “A Year in the Fields.”

Not only were they interested, they loved the project so much they decided to make the book an even larger format than our Zags book had been to better deal with the series’ amazing photographs and illustrations.

One of the things that you come to grips with when you work at a newspaper is that the shelf life for your journalism is typically about a day. Sure, a few people might look at certain stories and photos on our website after the day they were initially published, but the vast majority of the readership for the things we do is a single day. Or less.

Yet, from the very beginning, something about this project felt much deeper than that. These weren’t daily stories.

As “A Year in the Fields” began winning awards in our industry, we were honored with how our peers described the series, noticing that very same trait.

“The presentation of these stories is simply amazing,” wrote a judge for the Utah Idaho Spokane Associated Press Association awards, where the series earned first place. “Not only is the display visually appealing, the content is written with an engaging style. Bravo!”

Probably the biggest surprise was the series’ win in the Inland Press Association’s annual contest.

We are not members of this association, which is located in Chicago. Because of that, we were only allowed to enter online categories. Despite competing against the biggest papers across the Midwest, we won the Creative Use of Multimedia (for all circulation sizes) and drew this comment from the judges:

“Deliberate, detailed and relevant, The Spokesman’s story on the challenges and accomplishments on the farms of Washington state offers a comprehensive explanation of an industry changing within its own landscape.”

We even began to hear from historians at universities across the nation telling us that “A Year in the Fields” was one of the most in-depth and important looks at the state of agriculture in our nation’s history.

That’s all the more reason why we are so excited that it will now become a book.

And we hope you are, too.

The book goes on sale now with a deep discount for all preorders. It will be shipped by Dec. 7, just in time for the holidays.

Back when I was a young reporter, I was told one of our biggest responsibilities as a journalist was to give a voice to the voiceless.

We wanted to show the world that Washington was much more than just Amazon and Starbucks. We wanted to give our state’s farmers the voice they deserved.

We accomplished that and much more.

Our agricultural series has become a mirror for readers, who were reminded of the perseverance, hard work and risk required to operate a modern farm. And who delighted in their own memories or those of their parents and grandparents who started their lives in farm country.

Interestingly enough, this commitment was not unusual for this newspaper. The Spokesman-Review has long been there for the Washington farmer. Editions in the early 1900s even carried the tagline “The Farmer’s Family Newspaper” at the top of our front page.

The first time I saw that phrase on one of our front pages from more than a century ago, I knew I was home. Just like when I saw all of those breathtaking fields in the Palouse.