Friday, January 23, 2015

Modernist Farmer

It was with great concern that I read this week that Modern Farmer would be ceasing production after seven issues; it was with great relief (and, I'll admit, some lingering concern) to read only a few hours later that it still planned on publishing. The EIC has left, along with the staff, but the publishing remains confident that summer 2015 will offer a new issue. (I would like to suggest they put an alpaca on the cover, because that would please me.)

I bought my first issue of Modern Farmer expecting it to be a joke: a larkish parody of the glossy, fetishistic magazine devoted to say, pre-fab houses (Dwell), or some of your more specialized aviation or gun magazines that haunt the back aisle of the local Indigo store.

But when I started to read, it became clear that Modern Farmer wasn't intended to be funny. Sure, they had eschewed cover models for farm animals—a particularly clean pig, or a well-coiffed donkey—but the pages inside managed to offer a rigorous, if somewhat indulgent, view of modern farming. There was a column featuring agriculture ministers from around the world; there was gift guide that suggested a $415 wool coat that offered "lot of pockets." There were articles on mead producers and the social niceties of urban farming (no chickens where their morning cock-a-doodle-doos were likely to raise hackles), on barns converted into art spaces, and why jellyfish should be considered an edible crop.

This could have easily veered into parody—half these headlines might work on The Onion, skewering what one of my friends derided as "so stuff-white-people-like." The magazine's readership is small, and presumably mostly urban. It's clearly tailored to people who shop at Whole Foods but haven't actually been to a farm since a sixth-grade field trip. But reading closer, the articles about emerging farm technologies (LED lights! antibiotic alternatives!) could conceivably pique an actual farmer's interest. In the same way that both civilians and practicing interior designers subscribe to House & Home, it seemed possible to intersect the interests of the layperson and the practicing professional. That's where Modern Farmer hits its sweet spot.

We're a culture that has grown practiced at thinking about where food comes from. We shop organic, we shop free-range, we shop fermented and slow-cooked and hormone-free. Our hip restauranteurs shout out their herb purveyors and farmers on social media. The word "locavore" means something. We imagine that the animals we eat were happy before we turned them into food; we want farms to be idyllic places where a couple of flannel-wearing farmhands and big green tractor is all it takes to feed the masses.

So Modern Farmer takes those ideas, and those ideals, and gives us a visual. We get to see those converted barns, we get to see those tanned young WWOOFers beaming out from behind a farmer's market booth, we get to see those beautiful animals. It's not exactly realistic, but it's unreal in the same way as the "after" pictures in a home renovation story: plumped up and primed for print, but also still a real place.

Modern Farmer offers agriculture as an aspirational lifestyle; in a society that's often very removed from the production of its food, this position can seem almost ludicrous. But: I believe, as I imagine most Modern Farmer readers do, that this lifestyle is an integral and important part of all our lives, even if we rarely recognize it as such. The chance to glamourize and celebrate the muddy boots and 4 AM wake-up calls of a working farmer, to offer some insight into what they do and how they live, and to package it in a way that is so drop-dead gorgeous, is an endeavor that I can't help but support. I hope Modern Farmer rights itself quickly, for the sake of all us rurbanistas.

Image via Like Cool