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Modern Farmer shows upstart magazines still have a chance

“Oh, do you raise animals?” asked the bookseller when I brought a copy of Modern Farmer with a pig on its cover to the register for purchase a couple of months ago.

“No,” I said. “This is just a really interesting magazine.”

First, I should say that I love magazines. Don’t tell me print is dying. To me, nothing reflects our culture and its variety of interests more than a magazine stand. I just wish there were more of them.

Some grocery store and drugstore chains still fight the good fight and stock a good variety of publications. Others devote a little bit of space to gossip and lifestyle magazines, with maybe a few sports, automobile or cooking ones sprinkled in. Bookstores like Barnes and Noble still feature deep magazine sections. But of course, the brick-and-mortar bookstore is a dying breed. (Sitting in the cafe reading magazines without paying for them probably hasn’t helped bookstores. For what it’s worth, I bought my copy of Modern Farmer before sitting down with my coffee.)

Perhaps airports are the last bastion for magazine enthusiasts. The first thing I look for when I’m at the terminal is a newsstand. I see you, Hudson News! I’m virtually guaranteed to drop 30 bucks or more. There have been a few times when I couldn’t fit all the magazines I bought in the seatback sleeve, to the annoyance of the person sitting next to me. (He or she is free to read something from my stack, of course.)

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At first glance, Modern Farmer almost looks like it could be a parody of a magazine, making fun of the various niche audiences that certain publications can cater to. But when you hold the magazine in your hand, it becomes clear this is no joke. It’s thick and square bound, like a literary quarterly. Its cover price is $7.99. That alone shows this magazine isn’t fooling around.

Despite the seemingly narrow target audience, the story topics very much apply to interests and concerns in our current society, especially from a food standpoint. Are cattle being raised for dairy products treated humanely, especially under factory farming circumstances? Should more farms invest in solar energy as the technology becomes cheaper? How are gay farmers received in their rural communities? As sea levels rise and viable farmland disappears, are we looking at a day when farms are created on platforms in the ocean?

The quarterly magazine isn’t just devoted to investigative reports or think-pieces, either. There are practical articles on how to build a fence or raised garden beds, for example. Notes on improvements in tractor seat design and catalog-type spreads on the latest in farming-related products are clothing are colorfully and creatively laid out, much like something you might see in a fashion magazine. It has ads devoted to trucks, bourbon, tractors, individual farms and dating sites. (Several friends have pointed out to me that Farmers Only has advertised on TV.)

Putting faces to the magazine’s title is a priority, as well. Those who choose to get into farming these days aren’t necessarily the husky types, wearing trucker hats, flannel shirts and bib overalls.

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One of the farmers profiled is a chef and artist, who hunts deer, quail and boar on her property to cook for family and friends. Additionally, she uses those animals in her artwork, which sells for big money in galleries throughout the country. Another couple has been expanding their farm into a school (“West Point for farming”) with ambitions of training both small and large scale farmers. And in Japan, where farming is predominantly a boy’s club, a group of young women is looking to break some social barriers and make agriculture appealing to a generation that has had no interest.

Flipping through its pages, Modern Farmer just feels like a magazine ideally suited to our times. As a culture, we increasingly want to know where our food is coming from and the conditions under which it’s harvested. Upscale groceries and farmers markets are as popular as ever. While we become increasingly dependent on technology and staying plugged in at all times, the impulse to get away from it all and get back to something more natural gets stronger for many of us. And as several of the best magazines do, this provides a look at a lifestyle that’s rather unfamiliar.

It’s not for everyone, of course. But what magazine is, really? Those that try to be are often the ones that end up failing.

Modern Farmer does not appear to be failing. Many, many people are finding it an interesting magazine. Last week, the publication shocked the media establishment by beating out the likes of Vanity Fair, GQ, Road & Track and New York to win a National Magazine Award in the best magazine section category.

Who doesn’t love an upstart, especially when it beats out hugely established brands that belong to corporate media empires? This is Florida Gulf Coast beating Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament. Surely, it was notable that Modern Farmer was even nominated. That’s a testament to the quality of the publication, both in terms of its physical form and its content. But winning an award against such vaunted competition is an even more impressive statement.

As Mashable’s Seth Fiegerman reports, Modern Farmer has yet to turn a profit. But the magazine is also only a year old. What it’s already established, both in its print and online products, is extremely promising for a new media venture. It’s nice to know that a print publication — not a blog, website or online community — is still capable of fulfilling an underserved, niche audience. Maybe there’s still hope for magazines, after all. As with any endeavor, the product just has to be good. Modern Farmer is a really good product.

Ian Casselberry

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is a columnist for The Outside Corner and the editor of The AP Party. He has written for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.

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