November 1, 2013

When Modern Farmer launched its GoatCam in September, Editor-in-Chief Ann Marie Gardner was surprised to hear from people working at the Pentagon.

“They had a suggestion for changing the angle of the camera so they could see the goats better,” Gardner said in a phone interview.

Gardner (Photo by David Harriman)

Modern Farmer is proving adept at finding audiences in places one wouldn’t expect. Since launching this past April, its article on why cow-tipping is nearly impossible has become a viral hit, BuzzFeed’s Katie Notopoulos has written about how to behave at a farmers market and President Clinton has jawed about farming in its pages. (He remembers he once “badly lost a head-butting contest to a ram.”)

The Hudson, N.Y.-based publication offers a daily report online as well as a quarterly print magazine. Its target audience isn’t just urban weenies obsessing about kale, but people who are interested in the stories behind their food. Climate science, food policy and (oh yeah) actual agriculture are all coverage areas. Judging by the emails she’s received, Gardner said, farmers appreciate that the publication is “not insulting.”

“We’re credible with farmers because of the stories we’re telling,” she said. “And because we’re focused on solutions, which is something they appreciate.”

Rwanda’s agriculture minister Agnes Matilda Kalibata talked about the country’s agricultural renaissance in the Fall 2013 issue, while Jesse Hirsch reported on the difficulty of controlling wild pigs in the magazine’s premiere.

Gardner said Modern Farmer has 10 employees, five of whom have full-time editorial jobs. Its staff writers are expected to file three stories per day, which don’t necessarily land in the print edition: “It just feels like different things live differently in print,” Gardner said. “It feels internally very clear what the difference is.” A long investigative piece will probably hit the print edition first, for instance.

Gardner is also the company’s CEO, a new role for someone who’s been a journalist for most of her career, working for Monocle and The New York Times among other publications. As she planned Modern Farmer, she said, she decided that the website would be free, calling a paywall a “total turnoff … We think we can generate revenue from different sources.” Modern Farmer has an e-commerce site and Gardner said that “eventually we see ourselves doing events.”

(The Canadian tycoon Frank Giustra is Modern Farmer’s primary investor. He’s a partner of the Clintons in an anti-poverty initiative and helped arrange Modern Farmer’s interview with the former president.)

Modern Farmer does sell subscriptions to its print edition, which feels and looks terrific and shows ads for Bonterra organic wine alongside ones for Kioti tractors and Muck boots.

Single-copy sales, though, are more challenging: The number of newsstands continues to fall, and competition for space on the remaining shelves is fierce. Gardner is still thinking through that aspect of the business, musing that “there has to be a better way” to get magazines to readers. Modern Farmer could try to tap farmers markets as distribution points, or partner with community-supported agriculture outfits, she suggested.

“Think about who’s reading us — they’re eating organic vegetables and having them delivered to their house,” she said.

Gardner said while Modern Farmer was in the planning stages, people she spoke to at tractor shows saw her publication as being for the “lifestyle farmer, the hobby farmer — which definitely is part of the people we talk to.” But now that Modern Farmer is a reality, she added, “some bigger farmers are fascinated by the magazine, too.” She said her favorite reaction from readers is when they say, “I never knew farming was relevant to me.”

Correction: This post originally misspelled a writer’s first name: He is Jesse Hirsch, not Jessie.

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City…
Andrew Beaujon

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