Listening to Farmers

5/4/2013 7:00 AM
By Tabitha Goodling Central Pa. Correspondent

Ag Writer Tells the Story of Agriculture for 50 Years

LEWISTOWN, Pa. — Mary-Margaret Pecht of Lewistown, Pa., could tell just about any story involving agriculture.

The former writer for The Sentinel in Lewistown, for just shy of 50 years, grew up on a dairy farm in the small community of Vira, Pa., in Mifflin County.

“As a kid we only had four head of cattle. It was very, very different in those days,” she said of the late 1930s through the 1940s.

Her favorite story to tell about life on the farm was when her father built a tractor out of an old truck when she was just three years old.

Then, real excitement came on Dec. 8, 1941 — the day after the world seemed to be falling apart from the attack on Pearl Harbor. Her father brought home a brand new, bright red Farmall A.

Pecht remembers that day with a warm smile on her face as she reminisces.

As a young girl, she loved books and writing. She could read by age 4 and wanted to be a writer.

“When I was a kid we had the Pennsylvania Farmer, the Farm Journal and the Bible. That is what I read.”

It was in 1961 when she was hired by The Sentinel to write news about the Ferguson Valley area near her home. Before long she was called upon to write about the agricultural community, something she took seriously from the very beginning.

By the 1980s Pecht covered the agricultural beat exclusively. She attended many banquets and dinners. She sat through many 4-H and county fair results. She knew every 4-H leader and outspoken farmer in Mifflin and Juniata Counties. She knew by name every dairy princess, farmer of the year and friend of 4-H. Pecht was the go-to person in The Sentinel newsroom when an agriculture question arose.

Over the course of several decades, Pecht developed friendships not just with local farmers and members of local 4-H and Holstein clubs. She soon had created professional friendships with members of the Penn State Cooperative Extension and the community at Penn State’s agricultural department.

She noted the expertise of Lou Moore, former professor of agricultural economy as well as another educator, Jim Dunn.

“They were always good sources. It didn’t matter if the person was local or from Penn State, the people were always very nice.”

Pecht said her knowledge of the farm life from her childhood helped her in her news beat. But, she said, it was more than personal experience that helped her understand agriculture.

“A lot of it as a writer was listening to people. You listen to a presentation. You listen. I think I learned more from listening to the people, farmers who asked the questions,” she said of covering farm meetings.

“I remember the first farm meeting I ever went to. I was four years old and it was in a small one-room schoolhouse in Vira,” Pecht said, “And I had never been to the movies. I don’t remember what the program was about but I remember the man showed a short clip and it had cows grazing in the field eating. I listened. I could hear the cows chewing. Going home that night I told my mother, “I heard the cows eating!” Pecht said with a chuckle.

Farm meetings of today are much different than in the early 1940s. PowerPoint displays and computers are often used. Pecht said the meetings have changed just as the farm industry has changed. Technology has evolved in some major ways in the field, she said.

“Nowadays, machines can tell a farmer how much seed he needs and the amount of fertilizer to use. Technology is definitely the biggest change,” Pecht said.

The writer has grown in her agricultural knowledge as the times have changed. She said the people in the community keep her informed as much as she has kept them in the know.

“The people really educated me over the years. You ask questions when you don’t know. That’s important,” she said regarding her role as a reporter.

Her writing has garnered her awards in the agricultural world. She was named Atlantic Dairy Cooperative Agricultural Educator of the Year, Friend of 4-H for Mifflin County, and given the Distinguished Service to Agriculture award from the Mifflin County Holstein Club following her retirement from The Sentinel in 2010.

“The people gave me good information,” she said of why she received the awards. “They made me look good,” she added with a smile.

Though the technology and the operations of farms are different, the people are the same, she said.

“The farmers in Mifflin and Juniata County — anywhere really — are decent, hardworking people. They have to be in order to succeed. For a farmer to succeed you have to be a good business man. I see how they do their business and deal with other people. It’s true everywhere.”

As for Pecht, who has been married to husband Richard for 56 years and has a daughter and two grandchildren, she has always been doing her job as a reporter.

She retired from The Sentinel in 2010 but is still a dependable freelancer when called upon.

“I still enjoy it,” she said of the writing.

Retirement has kept her busy. She and Richard enjoy daily visits to the park and catching up with friends. She loved her job with The Sentinel and thought stepping back from telling the agricultural community’s stories would be hard.

“I miss it,” she said with a sigh, “but not like I thought I would.”

There is one story she has yet to tell. While she thinks fondly of how her dad built that old tractor, she admits, “The only thing I never did on a farm was a drive a tractor.”

Perhaps retirement will give her that opportunity, and she will have one more story to tell.

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