Building a media powerhouse

By: Melea Reicks Licht

Throughout her notable career as a journalist and media executive, Betsy Freese, executive editor for Successful Farming and Meredith Agrimedia, has learned the only constant in her industry is change.

During her 37-year tenure with Meredith, Freese (’84 agricultural journalism) helped transform the Successful Farming brand from a beloved magazine to one of the top multimedia resources in the farming and ranching industries.

Freese also was the founding editor of Living the Country Life, growing the brand from a quarterly publication to a multi-faceted media presence including national radio, television and social media.

Adaptability became one of her hallmarks.

Betsy Freese wearing a blue button up shirt and kneeling next to a pink pig“Although my ISU degree focused on magazine journalism, I have also hosted a TV show and a radio program and managed a website,” Freese says. “I always tell students to be flexible. Never lock yourself into one skill area or form of communication. You never know what technology is coming down the road. Be ready for whatever challenge is thrown your way. If you are a good communicator, you can communicate in any form.”

One constant throughout the past 27 years has been her role as publisher for the Pork Powerhouse rankings, an exclusive, annual report of the top pork producers in the U.S. and Canada. In 2017, she was honored as Folio magazine’s Top Women in Media Industry Leadership awardee. In 2019, her work with the Pork Powerhouse rankings won her Folio’s top award for a single article.

“Betsy’s legacy as a journalist will be etched among the pantheon of top ag journalists,” says Dave Kurns, the editorial content director for Successful Farming and fellow Iowa State alum. “Her career has been one of service: to our audience of farmers and ranchers; to the ag journalism industry; to Iowa State and aspiring journalists. Her dynamic and decorated career is a sterling example of the best that journalism represents.”

Her professional achievements have netted her national accolades and the respect of her peers as evidenced by her earning the President’s Award from both the American Agricultural Editors’ Association and the North American Agricultural Journalists Association and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Agricultural Editors’ Association.

In 2020, Freese was awarded the Iowa State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Henry A. Wallace Award. The Wallace Award is presented in recognition of notable professional achievements, nationally or internationally, that bring distinction to the individual, college and university.

“The Henry A. Wallace Award is so meaningful to me because Henry Wallace was an agricultural journalist. He spent his life helping farmers by providing useful information, and that’s something I’ve always tried to do as well,” says Freese.

Freese’s path to Iowa began in Maryland, where her family raised pigs and ran a pick-your-own strawberry operation. Her interest in swine production led her to Iowa State where she met and married her husband, Robert (’83 animal science, ’87 DVM).

While a student, Freese met animal science professor Max Rothschild, whose research on swine genetics revolutionized the U.S. pork industry. Rothschild is a retired Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor.

“I wrote up an interview with Dr. Rothschild about swine genetics and sent it to Successful Farming my senior year. And as they say, ‘that’s all she wrote,’” says Freese.

That article, and an impressive portfolio from her time interning with the Delmarva Farmer newspaper in Easton, Maryland, earned her full-time employment with the publication.

“For the past 15 years, I have been a supervisor in our apprentice program, working with students at both Iowa State University and Drake University for nine months during the school year,” she says. “That has been especially fulfilling. I am proud to have helped these fine young men and women launch their careers in journalism.”

“She is a role model for young agricultural journalists, apprentices and interns,” Kurns says. “She relishes coaching and mentoring young people, sharing her love of agriculture. But her stellar career and the award-winning work is truly inspiring.”

Following her retirement this past summer, Freese continues to mentor future journalists and invests in her community through service on the Board of Trustees for the Des Moines Metro Opera.