Corner Office: Founder Ann Marie Gardner Discusses the Launch of Quarterly Magazine Modern Farmer
What unites good business and good editorial is often a keen awareness of emerging trends. And if early interest is any indication, Modern Farmer founder Ann Marie Gardner has locked in on a global trend that's proving to be a rich ground for growing a multifaceted content platform. In April of 2013, Gardner launched Modern Farmer, a content brand that aims to explore global agriculture trends and capitalize on the general uptick of interest in food issues.
Inspiration for Modern Farmer came to Gardner several years ago while still an editor at global affairs and lifestyle magazine Monocle. Food was a topic of conversation everywhere Gardner traveled. "I was traveling around the world and I would go to Brazil and Iceland in the same month and then to Uruguay. And everywhere I went, people were having the same conversations. Food production and food security issues were coming up constantly. And I just saw that all the pieces fit together and nobody was talking about it in a way that I wanted to read about it. I could see this thing from a mile away. And I was like, 'This is more than a story.'"
What's also noteworthy is that Modern Farmer launched as a high-quality print quarterly, a stunning website, and ecommerce platform all at once—a strategy that eschews the notion that long-form journalism in printed form is a product of a bygone era. "We really wanted the magazine to be very tactile and something you wanted to hold onto and keep," says Gardner. In design and content, Modern Farmer calls back to a time past—when agriculture was more closely tied to Americans' hearts and minds—while still being a forward-thinking, modern examination of where our food comes from and the global implications of its consumption.
Why did you decide to launch a print quarterly,a website, and ecommerce instead of just testing the waters with one?
I knew it had to be a coordinated effort. It couldn't just be a blog, because no one was going to read it. It had to be a completely holistic effort where there were the modern farmers in the middle and you had spokes: you had print, you had the digital, you had products around it so people could really engage with the brand, and eventually events.
Really the pictures I drew of how this business looked two years ago is exactly where we're at. But I wasn't expecting it to be welcomed with such open arms. I feel the reaction of people has been so strongly positive that they must have been a little bit like me—waiting for this information to be presented. People write in and say, "I never knew agriculture was relevant to me." That's the biggest compliment we can get.
What gave you confidence that you could handle the business side of publishing?
First of all, my personality is pretty relentless. As a journalist, I don't like to be told no. And I know that's one of the qualities you need to be an entrepreneur. So I never questioned whether I was going to be able to do it or not. I just had the vision so clear. I knew what I was going to do. One of my closest friends Natalie Massenet started Net-A-Porter and I was on her original advisory board eleven years ago when she was a startup. She's been a real inspiration to me and I pretty much watched her in every phase of her business and knew what she went through.
Did you ever have a moment of doubt?
I never ever considered whether I could do it or not. It wasn't an option. I was just going to do it. But I also think that my vision was extremely clear. I knew exactly what I was trying to do, who I was trying to go after. You have to be clear about it because everybody is going to tell you no and everybody is going to tell you it can't be done, and everybody is going to tell you there isn't an audience, it's not scalable. I heard it all.
Are your readers the type of people you anticipated or have there been some surprises?
That was always the question from my investors—they would always say, "Who is it for?" And I had this simple formula in my initial presentations. Basically I said there's the modern eater—people that want the food they eat to have a good story behind it. These are people that shop at farmer's markets, they care where their food comes from. Those were the people I really wanted to go for. But also the people that wanted to grow things. So maybe they were the armchair farmer or they are these young farmers or there are people that want to leave their jobs and farm. There are a lot of those people but they hadn't been collected or spoken to in one group.
Do you find you have different audiences in print and digital?
There is a lot of crossover, but not completely. Not as much as you'd think. People just find us in different ways. They're reading us online and then they find the magazine. But I think that's a testament to the strength of our digital and print—they can totally live separately, but they're completely complimentary to each other. And once that audience gets hooked, then of course they want to buy the t-shirts and the hats and they're engaged with the brand in every way.
Do you anticipate publishing in print more frequently than quarterly?
We'll never go more than quarterly. There's no reason because we see ourselves as a digital brand. We're a content platform and that's where we see our future. And print is just one element of this expression of our brand.
We're going to really build out the website in the next year. And we're going to have our first Modern Farmer farm show—it will be an annual event. It'll be to bring the pages of the magazine to life. It's going to be fun. We're going to have tractors you can ride, food exhibitions, panel discussions, outdoor movies, a farmers market, people showing you how to make jam, weave wool.
Your website is very clean and simple yet consistent with the aesthetic appeal of the quarterly. What inspired your design?
We're really visual. We want pictures. We want it beautiful. We want you to have the feeling when you get on the site or you open the magazine that you're there in the country and you can smell the fresh air. So we wanted it to be very experiential.
And visually I always wanted to turn the farm animal into a celebrity.
When I was thinking through this I was inspired by this old magazine from France in the 50s. It was a farming magazine called Rustica and I really liked it because it had an old newspaper feel to it. It was very practical.
I also worked with Tyler Brûlé, [founder of Monocle and Wallpaper magazines] who is very visual too. And he really taught me about how important the consistency of brand is.
Why did you launch with an ecommerce component intact?
It always seemed obvious to me. You can't not have an ecommerce arm to your business. Right now there's Modern Farmer branded products. But we're starting to do collaborations with people. We're talking to a company that's like the Carhartt of Canada and we're going to do a collaboration with them. We've got a really great collaboration coming out for spring. We're doing a pair of overalls with John Patrick Organic—a jean gardening dress—that we're going to have for sale for the spring issue.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next year or two?
I'm looking out ten, but in the very short term I think where we're going to really grow is digital. We're going to get more aggregation, and we're going to do more community stuff—telling more farmers' stories and increase the amount of stories we run online. After this big event this year we'll probably up the events and the panels and the seminars we do in 2015. We'll probably go bigger on ecommerce.
It's a lot already, but I do want to expand globally faster in terms of our distribution and the awareness outside of the U.S. We're already selling in England and Australia and Berlin on small scale, and Manila and Tokyo. So we have a lot of good distribution outside the U.S. but it's still in a more niche capacity.
Denis Wilson was previously content director for Target Marketing, Publishing Executive, and Book Business, as well as the FUSE Media and BRAND United summits. In this role, he analyzed and reported on the fundamental changes affecting the media and marketing industries and aimed to serve content-driven businesses with practical and strategic insight. As a writer, Denis’ work has been published by Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Fortune, and The New York Times.