NORTH GERMANTOWN, N.Y. — For Massachusetts-native Ann Marie Gardner, the longing for a life tuned to the rhythms of the seasons rather than commuter rail schedules didn’t result in a turn to dairying or market gardening. Instead the former journalist raised an impeccably manicured wet finger to the wind and decided the time was right for a publication that would shine a light on contemporary agriculture, its practitioners, and the obsessive foodie culture sprouting around them.
The result: a high-design print publication and online counterpart that invites readers to wake up and smell the manure. Maybe even shovel it. It’s called Modern Farmer, and there’s nothing quite like it. “I don’t think we have competition right now,” says the 48 year-old Gardner, its editor-in-chief and CEO. “We’re not a food magazine, we’re not traditional in any way.”
The inaugural, 136-page print issue which appeared in April of this year (a second is on newsstands now), offers stories on the emergence of organic farming in China; booming populations of feral pigs (they’re in the streets of Berlin); and the interest survivalists are taking in seed banks. There’s also a thoughtful piece on humane slaughter.
It’s smart, pretty, and — in places — funny, although some of the laughter may be coming from old school types who will find the illustrated ‘poop chart’ on page 70 a howler. A column in the autumn issue attempts to match up celebs with vegetable (Q. How is kale like Gwyneth Paltrow? A. We’re so over it.) You can shop here (T-shirts, totes) and learn what’s chic in farm duds just now. “Modern farmers attach themselves to brands,” Gardner says.
To judge from the profiles page theee new agriculturalists are a diverse lot, ranging from wealthy urbanites who commute to their cattle ranches from downtown apartments to kids serving as unpaid volunteers at ag-based non-profits. Gardner says the magazine is aimed at honest-to-goodness, practicing farmers — but is it likely to grow a readership among the kind of people who actually make a living from the land?
Chris Kurth, who owns and operates Siena Farms and its 500 member CSA in Sudbury, Mass. thinks so. “There are lots of new ideas brewing here,” he says of the new publication. “This first issue does a nice job of showing the explosion of different types of agriculture and the inter-disciplinary aspect of every farmer’s work. It’s about a whole world of individuals and communities working on growing food.”
Chef Caleb Barber of Osteria Pane e Salute in Woodstock, Vermont, who supplies his restaurant from his own gardens doesn’t see the publication as being aimed at farmers so much as at a group interested in the issues that surround farming. “But I’m enthusiastic about broadening the conversation about where our food comes from and how we want to produce it.”
Print issues appear quarterly, but in keeping with Gardner’s vision of Modern Farmer as a media company the publication has a robust online presence. Three fresh stories are posted everyday and all content (including what has appeared in the print vehicle) can be viewed free there. There’s an event Gardner calls “cross between a county fair and a tractor show” on tap for next summer, and a book project underway.
There are similarities to niche, arty quarterlies ands bi-monthlies such as Gather Journal and Kinfolk, but MF has a less introverted, more inclusive feel.
Gardner shares the Shaker-prim and pin-tidy two-story white house she bought and rehabbed six years ago here with three dogs. The view of the Hudson River from the property is spectacular. Nearby farmsteads leave no doubt you’re in the country. But there’s a vibe about the place and the publication that has its origins elsewhere.
Raised in Mansfield, Mass, the slender, energetic entrepreneur graduated from Boston College and the Harvard School of Public Health. She spent seven years in London, where she worked as a freelance journalist and later as a staffer at the Tatler. Gardner returned to New York City in January of 2000, but moved upstate shortly after. Living in a rented barn she commuted to the city while editing travel issues of T: The New York Times Magazine. From 2007 she was also the American bureau chief for the British culture/style/ideas publication, Monocle. “That was when I lived on a plane,” she quips.
Now, she commutes no further than nearby Hudson, where Modern Farmer has offices. It’s a town in the process of a makeover at the hands of artsy city types so dramatic that some now refer to the area as Williamsburg-on-the-Hudson.
To judge from what we’ve seen so far, Modern Farmer offers readers a ground-level view of global agriculture in all its bewildering variety — with one notable exception. There’s little to no reference in its pages to the highly capitalized, chemically-dependent behemoth known as Big Ag. Farming on this scale may be short on romance, but it continues to produce most of the food people eat today and it’s hard to see how it can be ignored.
Would Modern Farmer sell adspace to Monsanto? “We haven’t had to make that call yet,” Gardner muses. “We’re looking for brand alignment with our advertising. A Monsanto ad would alienate our readers.”
Farmer Kurth thinks that so far the magazine is doing a good job of balancing the its coverage of young, organic growers with larger-scale, traditional operations and of showing how both are adapting to a changing marketplace.
“Modern farmers can’t just grow food, they have to market and sell what they grow,” Gardner says. “To do this they have to be connected to a community, understand social media. You have a different kind of farmer now.”
First published in The Boston Globe 9/24/2013
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