Well, whaddya know? A large daily newspaper printed a story about low commodity prices in a foreign country without blaming them on U.S. cotton farmers or U.S. farm programs.

The Oct. 27 Memphis Commercial Appeal carried an article about Nicaraguan farmers who have been hurt by low coffee prices. Unlike an earlier story in the Wall Street Journal about cotton farmers in Mali, the story did not try to link the low prices back to U.S. farm programs.

Coffee farmers in Nicaragua and Columbia and Kenya have seen the prices they receive drop to next to nothing because of the glut of coffee on the world market. The article said the savings from the lower prices — surprise, surprise — have not been passed on to consumers.

The article, which was distributed by the Los Angeles Times, was a surprising feature for the Commercial Appeal, or the CA, as it calls itself, which has strayed somewhat from its agricultural roots of late.

At one time, the Commercial Appeal was the leading voice of Southern agriculture, and its stable of ag writers, including the late Lloyd Dinkins and Emmett Maum, were widely known in farm circles for their knowledge and perception.

Lately, the newspaper has gone through a string of recent journalism school graduates on the ag beat, who seem to have little knowledge of the farm economy, farm programs or farm technology. Charles Conner, who stayed on the beat for several years and earned the respect of farmers, was an exception.

Like most metropolitan dailies, the Commercial Appeal had nasty things to say about the 2002 farm bill, a strange stance considering the impact it is likely to have on the Memphis economy.

But the newspaper may have sunk to a new low as far as agricultural issues are concerned when it printed a series of articles on rice irrigation, titled “Draining Arkansas.” The series was critical of Arkansas rice farmers who seem to think they have a claim on the state's water resources.

“While there are several questionable statements found within this report, the greatest error is one of omission — the newspaper's total disregard for the economic impact rice farming has on the Arkansas economy,” said a reader who e-mailed us to complain about the Commercial Appeal's anti-agriculture bias.

“Not to mention the fact that the entire Mid-South's economic infrastructure is founded on agriculture and agribusiness and not Federal Express as the newspaper would have you believe.”

Back to coffee prices — the Commercial Appeal article notes that the glut of coffee is due to expansion in Vietnam and Brazil. Vietnam, it said, has increased its coffee production from 2 million 132-pound bags in the early 1990s to 14 million bags in 2001. It is now the world's second largest coffee producer — behind Brazil.

Knowing the Brazilians, they are probably preparing to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization, accusing Nicaragua and Columbia of conspiring to reduce coffee prices as they have against U.S. farmers on world cotton prices.

Like the CA's series on irrigation water for rice farmers, such antics might be funny if they didn't have such serious ramifications for growers.

flaws@primediabusiness.com