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Just Taking Notes

Donna Vestal
Harvest Public Media

Sometimes farm roots don’t blossom into a farm life. But those memories can still have a huge influence, perhaps even determining a career choice.

That’s the case for Tom Karst, a soft-spoken, well-respected journalist who’s been covering the fruit and vegetable industry for more than 25 years.

As a child, Karst would get to “see the wheat harvest” on his Uncle Art’s farm in Galatia, Kan., and he eventually was put to work as a teenager. Some years later, after his mother remarried a farmer, Karst moved to a Nebraska irrigated corn farm during his senior year of high school. Although he enjoyed the camaraderie of farm work, he found something he connected with even more: writing. So Karst combined those interests to study agriculture journalism at Kansas State University.

“I don’t know if I could have done farming as a profession; I’m not cut out for it,” he told me. “But there’s nothing to beat just going out the door and having work to do. The work is right there for you. And you come back and you’re still at your home. In that way it’s kind of an enviable lifestyle.”

As you can hear in his My Farm Roots story, Karst’s farm memories aren’t especially passionate. But he is quite nostalgic, talking of his experiences in the field like an outsider taking notes. And that leads to something of a gee-whiz fascination with things like irrigation, which certainly is a helpful attitude for a journalist.

I also think it’s consistent with how many people who don’t commit to a farm life, despite their roots, look back with something of a romantic bent to that history. What I find so interesting with Karst is how he has translated those tentative farm roots into an abiding empathy for the farmer and the food industry overall.

I’ve actually known Karst since his earliest days as a reporter. We started at Vance Publishing, based in a Kansas City suburb, at roughly the same time in the mid-1980s. He was a reporter with a fruit and vegetable electronic news service called ProNet; I was a copy editor for The Packer, a national weekly newspaper for the fruit and vegetable industry. Karst eventually became markets editor for The Packer (following all “the deals”), then editor of Global Produce magazine, and for more than 10 years now, national editor for The Packer.

Karst has traveled the world – from onion fields in Tasmania to grape orchards in Chile — and his passion for this industry is infectious.

“Sometimes the industry doesn’t see all the things that it does to get the product from the field to consumer,” he said.

But Karst sees it and can explore it with ease – in large part because his farm roots instilled in him an enduring appreciation of the land and the people who are willing to make a commitment to the land.

This is the third installment of My Farm Roots, Harvest Public Media’s series chronicling Americans’ connection to the land. Click here to explore more My Farm Roots stories and to share your own.

Harvest Public Media, based at KCUR, is a collaborative public media project that reports on important agriculture issues in the Midwest. Funded by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Harvest Public Media has reporters at six NPR member stations in the region. To learn more, visit www.harvestpublicmedia.org, like HarvestPublic Media on Facebook or follow @HarvestPM on Twitter.

Donna Vestal is the Managing Director of America Amplified: Election 2020.
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