The Best Egg-Laying Chickens, And a Pig As Cover Star: The Winning Modern Farmer Formula

After it won a National Magazine Award, the big beasts of the publishing world—from Vanity Fair to Mother Jones—crowded round Modern Farmer’s table to lavish praise on a magazine making rural living look extremely cool.

05.02.14 4:12 PM ET

“You don’t look like a farmer,” emcee Mika Brzezinski quipped as the editor of Modern Farmer climbed onto the stage Thursday night to accept a National Magazine Award.

Indeed, Ann Marie Gardner wasn’t sporting bib overalls or chewing on a piece of straw in the ballroom of New York’s Marriott Marquis Hotel, where the elite of the magazine world, as they do every year, gathered to celebrate each other and themselves.

Instead, the founder and editor in chief of the year-old quarterly—the night’s surprise winner in a field that included GQ, New York, and Vanity Fair—was wearing a two-toned white-and-silver Maria Cornejo gown, showing off her slim figure to best advantage, and had her hair in a stylish blond bob.

“I have straw in my handbag, just for dental floss,” the forty-something Gardner joked, minutes after picking up the prize for best magazine section—Modern Farmer’s “Handbook,” a how-to guide on everything from creating a raised-bed vegetable garden to acquiring the right egg-laying chicken to building your own fence—and beating out much richer, more established titles.

Reyhan Harmanci, the fledgling journal’s executive editor, whom Gardner recruited from Buzzfeed, added: “We don’t always know the difference between sheep and goats, but we know people who do.”

As Gardner fortified her jangled nerves from the unexpected victory with a tumbler of tequila, Harmanci and senior West Coast editor Andy Wright celebrated with glasses of bourbon as editors from rival magazines crowded around to congratulate them. Folks from Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar and Mother Jones came up to lavish praise.

“I love Modern Farmer!” crowed Landscape Architecture editor Brad McKee, throwing his arms around Gardner and planting a kiss on her cheek.

Hearst Magazines editorial director Ellen Levine, who oversees Cosmopolitan among other titles, approached to confirm with Gardner that she will be traipsing upstate on Friday afternoon to Modern Farmer’s modest office in Hudson, N.Y., for a meeting of some sort. About what? Does Hearst want to acquire or invest in the mag? “I want to ask her for a job,” Levine dodged.

The high point, for Gardner at least, was when a delegation from Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia told her that their boss is a huge fan. “Martha had to leave, but she loves you,” one said. “She was so happy you won.”

Gardner was beside herself. “Does she remember meeting me?” she asked. “I was at the Golden Door spa with Martha ten years ago, and she and I were on this meditative hike, and she wouldn’t stop talking. I loved her…This makes my night!”

Instead of domestic divas, movie stars and scandalized politicians, the celebrities on the cover of Modern Farmer—which is printed, natch, on recyclable eggshell paper and boasts 13,000 paid subscriptions (at $19.97 a pop) as well as substantial newsstand sales in a press run of 100,000—have included a rooster, a goat, a sheep, and a pig. Modern Farmer also has a lively web site.

The articles—for which the mag pays freelancers a dollar a word for the print edition—have explored such subjects as moose-milking in Russia and bulking up with a fitness regimen that features lugging agricultural equipment. Apparently advertisers are flocking to the title, with such brands as Dodge Ram and Chipotle buying space amid the editorial content.

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This is, to put it mildly, a counterintuitive time in the media business to be launching a print-on-paper magazine, especially when so many exemplars of dead-tree journalism, under siege from the Darwinian economics of the digital revolution, are tightening their belts or shutting down.

But Gardner and her lean team—nine fulltime staffers who operate out of a second-floor space below a Pilates a studio in the artsy weekend village of Hudson, two hours on the train from Manhattan—have somehow caught the magazine equivalent of lightning in a bottle.

“There is a serious undercurrent here,” said Gardner, between sips from her tumbler. “We cover how extreme weather is affecting what we eat, where it comes from, food security. It’s need-to-know that is sort of disguised as nice-to-know.” She added, satirically perhaps, that Modern Farmer exists in “the sweet spot” between urban sophistication and gun-toting survivalism. “We are helping people prepare for the apocalypse.”

Guido Vitti

Before Modern Farmer, Gardner had spent her career toiling at high-end titles, including W, the New York Times’s fashion and design book, T Magazine, Monocle, and a decade in London writing for The Economist and Tatler. She figured out two years ago that the next big thing in niche journalism, in the age of global warming and extreme weather, would be ecological sustainability, farm-to-table food, and the challenging charms of growing-your-own.

She managed to find a billionaire to bankroll her vision—Canadian mining tycoon and philanthropist Frank Giustra—and, with her contacts in the Manhattan media and her impressive powers of persuasion, quickly attracted reams of favorable press clippings, notably a lengthy profile splashed last fall in The Times.

“We’re the farming magazine for media professionals,” Gardner joked in her acceptance speech as Brzezinski and fellow emcee Joe Scarborough of MNSBC’s Morning Joe fame presented her trophy, a sharp-edged, brushed-brass reproduction of the Alexander Calder stabile “Elephant.”

Meanwhile, she’s on the hunt for a second round of investors. “Just a million dollars or two,” she said. “Not very much, considering what we’re doing and the success we’ve had.”