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Best of NAMA 2023

by Barb Baylor Anderson, Contributing Editor

Unembellished adjectives might best describe the success and longevity of one of the oldest farm magazines in the country. One hundred and twenty-five years since its inception, "simple" and "practical" are words Farm Journal leaders use to talk about what has grown from a one-man, one-magazine journal to a multi-media company.

"Farm Journal has evolved over the years in response to changes in agriculture, media and technology, but disseminating practical information to farmers has always been the underlying value of the company," says Sonja Hillgren, editor, Farm Journal, Philadelphia.

Farm Journal was first published in March 1877. Wilmer Atkinson, a journalist, farmer and Quaker, created the journal as a way to communicate to others who farmed within a day’s journey from Philadelphia. Atkinson was considered a very practical and ethical man, and he was soon labeled a source of solid farming information. As the journal’s reputation spread under Atkinson’s ambitious eye, so also did it’s reach. During Atkinson’s lifetime and in the early 20th century, the magazine achieved national circulation.

"Farm Journal was viewed as the place to get practical, not theoretical, information on how to be a better farmer, and Atkinson didn’t accept advertising for snake oil," says Hillgren.

When the farm economy weakened during the Great Depression, the Pew family bought Farm Journal in 1935.

"The Pews saved the magazine. They invested money into it and recruited high-caliber editorial and publishing executives," says Hillgren.

In 1939, Farm Journal, Inc. purchased Farmer’s Wife and the publication became a women’s section in the journal. The company also bought Country Gentleman in 1955, but had to divest the publication because of anti-trust laws.

In 1935, publisher Graham Patterson sold the printing press and signed on with R.R. Donnelley & Sons to print the magazine, setting the stage for one of the major milestones of the company’s history. In 1982, R.R. Donnelley and Farm Journal pioneered a new dimension of publishing known as selectronic binding.

"Farm Journal is perhaps most famous in the magazine industry for our selectronic binding innovation-we know the profiles of our readers from our database and can use that information to produce tailored issues of the magazine that are specific to reader demographics," says Hillgren. "We were the very first magazine with that capability."

Selectronic binding also was instrumental in the decision to take livestock-specific sections out of the magazine and create new stand-alone publications, including Dairy Today and Beef Today.

"When Farm Journal was created, farmers were more alike in size and raised a wide variety of crops and livestock. But the thrust of the 20th century was specialization. That’s why selectronic binding became so important," says Hillgren. "As farmers specialized, we had the capability to target editorial and advertising and eventually provide livestock publications to serve them."

Top Producer was introduced in 1984 to serve the emerging group of farmers aggressive about expansion. Earl Ainsworth, who was then senior vice president-editorial of Farm Journal, Inc., modeled the high-end publication after Fortune magazine.

The Tribune Company owned Farm Journal from 1994 to 1997 when an investor and management group bought the magazine family. The new ownership group also acquired Pro Farmer and AgDay Television.

"Adding the Pro Farmer newsletters allowed us to look toward creating more content for our Internet site,," says Hillgren. eventually became, which was founded at the beginning of 2000. While AgWeb operates as a separate company, Farm Journal, Inc. and AgWeb remain very closely aligned strategically. "AgWeb is populated with Farm Journal media content to serve our readers on-line and we cooperate on cross-content platforms," says Hillgren.

The 1990s strategy of the new management and ownership group was to become a multi-media company. So Farm Journal, Inc. added a radio network and seminars and conferences to the family of magazine, newsletter, television and Internet interests. The owners also began to think about ways to tailor content for farmers who might rely on any or all of the sources for their ag information.

The strategy initiated in the late 1990s to develop multi-media solutions for farmers and agribusiness commands Farm Journal’s full attention today, stresses Andy Weber, who was named president and chief executive officer in May 2000. Weber brought an extensive background in publishing and associated businesses, as well as an interest in working for an independent company focused solely in a market he respects.

"My career started in agriculture. I worked for a competitor and was always impressed by the strength of the Farm Journal brand," says Weber. "Because of our unwavering commitment to serving farmers’ needs, we have earned their trust and they look to us first."

Weber plans to move forward with a basic and straightforward strategy. "We are a simple business," he says. "We provide critical business information in whatever form farmers need it and try to impact as many stages of their decision-making process as possible. This content then serves as a strong platform to link buyers and sellers in agriculture."

Weber plans more "cross-content" platforms, such that different slices of the same topic can be tailored for all outlets and audiences for a complete package, from AgDay Television and Top Producer to the Internet. A recent example is Farm Journal, Inc. publishing a magazine version of AgDay’s "WeekEnd MarketPlace" show taped on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade.

"We will strengthen our effort to be a multi-media platform with relevant and cutting edge information," adds Hillgren. "We have tightened our focus on crop and livestock production and take seriously our role as a leader in providing policy information. We will continue to develop content relevant to producers’ needs to increase profits. We are forward-looking as we build on our past."

As an example, the company has just entered a joint venture with Landwirtschaftsverlag GmbH, the leading agricultural publisher in Germany, to publish The Tractor Sourcebook. The resource book, which will be released in November, will contain reviews of major U.S. tractor brands and driving impressions, workshop maintenance and repair ideas, as well as lighter pictorial stories.

Weber says that Farm Journal will rely on its database and hands-on involvement in the market to help shape its future. "We have a large staff in Iowa that updates 700,000 farmer demographics each year. We have over 50 leading journalists in the field. That database and our field presence tells us what shifts are taking place and allows us to understand farming trends first. It allows us to reflect those trends in our magazines, television, radio, over the Internet and everywhere else," he says.

Farm Journal will also use database information and its myriad media to help agribusinesses position products and tailor solutions according to customer needs. "We help agribusiness generate more than just awareness-we help them sell products," Weber says. "We want to be partners with agribusiness in as many stages of their sales process as possible."

Farm Journal has a journalistic commitment and farmers trust our consistency," he sums. "Our proud past and brand equity will help us grow as we provide more types of information and solutions for the ag community. We are excited about these prospects." AM (see sidebar below)

Farm Journal, Inc. has grown dramatically in its 125 years. Today, the Company holds interests in print, electronic, newsletter and Internet businesses. Publication titles include Farm Journal, Top Producer, Beef Today and Dairy Today. Broadcast properties include AgDay and WeekEnd MarketPlace, both nationally syndicated television shows, and the Farm Journal Radio Network.

Farm Journal’s newsletter publications include Pro Farmer and LandOwner, and Farm Journal’s Internet presence continues through its significant content, business and investment partnership in AM

1877-Farm Journal founded by Wilmer Atkinson with 25,000 copies printed.
1915-Farm Journal achieves national distribution and one million subscribers.
1935-After purchase by the Pew family, Farm Journal, Inc. sells presses and contracts printing with R.R. Donnelley & Sons.
1939-Farm Journal, Inc. buys Farmer’s Wife magazine from Webb Publishing.
1952-Farm Journal launches three regional editions.
1955-Farm Journal, Inc. buys Country Gentleman from Curtis Publishing.
1958-Farm Journal initiates controlled circulation to persons with an active interest in farming.
1962-64-Farm Journal launches livestock demographic sections bound inside the magazine.
1960s-Farm Journal, Inc. computerizes circulation file and begins collecting demographic data on subscribers that becomes the most advanced database on farmers.
1982-Building on its database, Farm Journal becomes the first magazine in history to bind its issues selectronically, thus targeting magazines depending on readers’ crops or livestock, size and region.
1984-Farm Journal Inc. launches Top Producer for large farms.
1984-Farm Journal publishes 8,896 different versions of its May issue.
1985-Livestock sections become separate vertical magazines.
1995-Farm Journal, Inc. launches Internet site.
1998-Farm Journal, Inc. purchases Pro Farmer, nation’s largest circulation agricultural newsletter.
1998-Farm Journal, Inc. purchases AgDay Television.
2000-AgWeb founded as Internet company.
Barb Baylor Anderson is a freelance writer from Edwardsville, Ill., who covers a wide variety of ag issues.

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