NORTH GERMANTOWN, N.Y. — For Bay State native Ann Marie Gardner, the longing for a life tuned to seasonal rhythms rather than commuter rail schedules didn’t result in 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 media company with a high-design quarterly magazine and a robust online presence 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 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 (a second is on newsstands), offers stories on the emergence of organic farming in China; booming populations of feral pigs (they’re on Berlin streets); 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 Fall issue attempts to match celebs with vegetables (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. “Modern farmers attach themselves to brands,” Gardner says.
The new agriculturalists profiled range from wealthy urbanites who commute to their cattle ranches to kids serving as unpaid volunteers at ag-based nonprofits. 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, thinks so. “There are lots of new ideas brewing here,” he says of the publication. “This first issue does a nice job of showing the explosion of different types of agriculture and the interdisciplinary aspect of every farmer’s work. It’s about a whole world of individuals and communities working on growing food.”
Chef and co-owner Caleb Barber of Osteria Pane e Salute in Woodstock, Vt., who supplies his restaurant from his own gardens, doesn’t see the publication as being aimed at farmers so much as at someone interested in the issues that surround farming, he says. “I’m enthusiastic about broadening the conversation about where our food comes from and how we want to produce it.”
An annual subscription to the print magazine costs $19.95, but the content will eventually all appear free online, along with three new stories daily. On tap for next summer is an event Gardner calls “a cross between a county fair and a tractor show,” and there’s a book project underway. Modern Farmer has similarities to niche, arty quarterlies and bimonthlies such as Gather Journal and Kinfolk, but MF has a less introverted, more inclusive feel.
Gardner shares the Shaker-prim two-story white house she rehabbed here six years ago, with a spectacular view of the Hudson River, with three dogs. Nearby farmsteads leave no doubt you’re in the country. But there’s a vibe about the place and the new venture 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 as a freelance journalist and later as a staffer at the Tatler. Gardner returned to New York City in January 2000, but moved upstate shortly after. Living in a rented barn, she commuted 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.”
Now, she commutes no farther than nearby Hudson, where Modern Farmer has offices. It’s a town in the process of a makeover so dramatic it’s being called Williamsburg-on-the-Hudson.
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 to the highly capitalized behemoth known as Big Ag. Farming on this scale is short on romance, but continues to produce most of the food people eat today.
If Monsanto were to make a call to Modern Farmer’s ad department, you have to wonder what the reaction would be. “We’re looking for brand alignment,” says Gardner. “A Monsanto ad would alienate our readers.”
Farmer Kurth thinks that the debut issue balances coverage of young, organic growers with larger-scale, traditional operations, and shows 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.”
So now it’s an oink, oink here; a tweet, tweet there.