WSJ – Glossy Acres: A Magazine’s Lush Take on Farmer

By Rebecca Rothbaum

Modern Farmer
A page from the debut issue of Modern Farmer, a new quaterly magazine that hits newsstands Tuesday.

In its debut issue, Modern Farmer magazine hails the timber-and-steel design of a sheep shearers’ abode as an example of “rurbanism,” a coinage meant to evoke an urban take on agricultural concepts. That is exactly the niche the glossy publication hopes to fill.

Think of it as Gourmet crossed with Dwell and sent to “Green Acres,” as veteran editors from Manhattan’s largely livestock-free magazine world try to tap into the interest in back-to-the-soil living.

Modern Farmer, which hits newsstands Tuesday, offers a luxurious mashup of agricultural reportage — on, say, the effects of climate change on rice cultivation in India — and the high-sheen stuff of lifestyle and fashion magazines, such as travel to the Italian countryside.

Where Vogue depicts models in couture, Modern Farmer goes with lavishly photographed heritage-breed chickens and their wildly colored feathers. Published on heavy matte stock with whimsical hand-drawn illustrations, the look of the new quarterly can best be described as rustic chic.

The magazine has its headquarters in Hudson, N.Y., the upstate town two hours from Manhattan often described as a haven for big-city transplants looking to go pastoral. The overarching draw is culinary, even if there won’t be much in the way of recipes.

Modern Farmer
The debut issue of Modern Farmer, a new magazine aimed at real farmers and their more urban admirers.

“People are craving a closer relationship to the source of their food,” explained Ann Marie Gardner, the magazine’s founder and editor in chief. “We’re talking about how that food got to your plate, not necessarily how to cook it.”

Never mind that many readers might not know a Kubota from a kabocha (a tractor and a squash, respectively). Modern Farmer is there to help, with practical advice on turning your backyard garden into a four-season farm or building a straw-bale house.

Ms. Gardner’s globe-trotting reporting as a founding editor and former Americas bureau chief of Monocle magazine brought her into contact with people from different cultures absorbed by a set of concerns that she came to see as linked: the environment, food production and personal health.

“I realized this wasn’t just my next story,” she said. “It was bigger than that, it was a movement.”

She left Monocle, hatched a business plan and secured backing last year from Vancouver-based Fiore Capital Corp. The firm’s chief executive, Frank Giustra, is a film executive who created a sustainable-development project with former President Bill Clinton that works with poor farmers in Colombia, Peru, and Mexico.

Modern Farmer, Mr. Giustra said in an email, fills a niche “not currently being addressed by any publication I have seen.” His firm has financed the development of the magazine as well as the 100,000-copy run of the 136-page debut.

That sort of backing, in turn, has enabled Modern Farmer to give away almost half of the copies of its first issue to community-supported agriculture members and other customers of organic delivery services. It is a marketing ploy meant to turn those who already pay for subscriptions of farm-fresh produce into magazine subscribers.

The rest will be sold at a cover price of $7.99 on racks inside retailers like Whole Foods and Tractor Supply. An online-commerce side of the magazine’s website will seek to generate additional revenue by offering readers deals on farming accouterment.

Victor Navasky, director of Columbia University Journalism School’s Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism and a former publisher, said Modern Farmer might have help developing an advertiser base given strong interest in food-related titles.

“I think ultimately nobody knows what will happen in publishing,” Mr. Navasky said. “There is a certain logic and symmetry and beauty to the idea of a quarterly for farmers.”

Ms. Gardner described Modern Farmer’s intended audience as “anyone who cares about where their food comes from. This could be someone who grows herbs on their windowsill in Williamsburg or a third-generation farmer.”

She acknowledged the difference between those two ideal readers, emphasizing the magazine’s efforts to balance the romantic notions of urbanites with the hard realities faced by working farmers. Amid photos of verdant fields and dewy-faced farmhands, there is a piece on farmers’ scars and a cartoon poking fun at poseurs. (Sample advice: Wear a hat for shade but make sure it isn’t a John Deere cap unless you actually own a tractor.)

Jean-Paul Courtens, a farmer from Kinderhook, N.Y., gave the first issue points for its unvarnished depiction of his trade. The details, he said, are the kind he and his wife share in their behind-the-scenes newsletter sent to the 1,500 CSA members who receive food from the couple’s Roxbury Farm.

“Our members love hearing about how we farm — they gobble it up,” said Mr. Courtens. “There’s a tremendous number of people who want some honest information about where their food comes from. And not the Martha Stewart kind of stuff.”

This farmer isn’t ready to become a Modern Farmer subscriber just yet, preferring what he called the “boring reading” he gets from local agricultural groups.

“Farmers,” Mr. Courtens said, “need soil information and to know what insects are arriving or whether there is a cold wind from the north.”

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