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Ploughing an editorial furrow

Advertising-free publications are nothing new. Newsletters have been doing it for years, but they are unusual in the farming market where the big machinery manufacturers provide valuable revenue streams for many of the leading titles. Yet it was that very advertising support, and the seeming influence it exerted over editorial, that led Mike Donovan to spot a new niche in a mature market.

By Mike Donovan

Practical Farm Ideas magazine overturns many publishing rules. It was born as much from enthusiasm as hard-headed business analysis, from gut feeling as much as market research. The quarterly A4 48 page all colour magazine may look very similar to other titles in the farm magazine market, yet it's very different. The title, created on my farmhouse kitchen table in 1991, was based on an all-subscriptions model with no advertising or sponsors.

A farm upbringing meant I was always going to stay close to the industry. Driving tractors and helping on my grandfather's Oxfordshire farm led to a degree in Agricultural Economics, and the subsequent ten years in London told me I didn’t want to live there for the rest of my life. My career there did, however, provide a tempting insight and experience of publishing as I edited a business magazine for the Financial Times. At the same time, my wife was a researcher with Which? – so our understanding of magazines was editorial, not advertising. In 1977, we left London for a small farm of our own in West Wales.

Farming, like ocean racing, is a business which can hoover up large quantities of capital, and a start-up like ours required considerable levels of borrowing. So the farm was run on a shoe-string, which proved useful when interest rates exceeded 15% in the mid 80s. We survived by minimising capital spending, and it didn't take long for me to gain workshop skills necessary to keep our very second hand machinery going, and this led to modifying and building simple pieces of equipment for our own farm.

So, along with milking my 60 cows, I was cutting up metal, welding and making some useful improvements that lifted the farm efficiency and saved routine work (simple obvious things which were often not available from the machinery dealers), a good many of these being inspired by home built machinery and equipment seen on neighbouring farms. It became obvious to me that we farmers were all re-inventing the wheel; we had no means of sharing workshop and other ideas, designs, and experiences. The supply trade had largely taken over the provision of farm advice… yet go back to the 18th century and you find farmers mutually sharing ideas through their local agricultural societies (which now mainly exist to stage the summer show) and farmers sharing ideas with their land owners, such as the sheep shearings run at Holkham Hall, Norfolk, by John Coke. My interest in cost cutting and farming with minimal capital was at variance with the farming press, which was always keen to interest farmers in new products and services.

Appeal of editorial-only

With my FT experience, I decided to become a publisher. The catalyst was the discovery and subsequent advice from the editor and publisher of an American faming magazine, with whom I have enjoyed a fulfilling long term relationship. His magazine has a big circulation, and has focused entirely on editorial, with no adverts. No advertising means having just one customer – the reader as opposed to having to satisfy both reader and advertiser - which was immensely appealing. Back of envelope calculations showed the budget would balance on a relatively low level of sales, provided costs were closely controlled. This, from my farming experiences, has become a way of life.

It didn’t take long to decide that Practical Farm Ideas - the title was suggested by a farmer contacted in the initial market research - would be all editorial. I saw selling pages of adverts as difficult, even with a reasonable circulation, and this could only be achieved by distributing free copies. I would be in the same position as other publishers, but without the staff or experience in the ad sales department. Big name advertisers, most in London, Birmingham and elsewhere would want meetings, and how could I do these when I had a herd of cows to milk twice a day?

Would advertisers appreciate the cost cutting features that filled each issue, with the emphasis on cutting farm costs and thinking hard about machinery expenditure? For example, showing farmers how to convert a scrap lorry into a decent farm trailer would not always appeal to trailer manufacturers! Advertisers are used to monthly and weekly titles and the Farm Ideas quarterly frequency would be another reason to say no, yet a higher frequency would stretch editorial and financial resources.

In March 1992, 2,500 copies of the first issue were delivered by a local printer, and 500 copies sent to the initial subscribers, who had signed up on a leaflet which I had distributed by the Milk Marketing Board. The over-run copies would be used as an incentive for future subscribers.

Like all great business ideas, I had every confidence that the compelling logic would appeal to farmers up and down the land – that they would beat a path to my door. Sufficient have done so, but not, it must be admitted, in the kind of numbers first envisaged. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see the following reasons for this:

1. The business model was influenced by the American magazine, yet the magazine market in America is very different to ours. 80% of US magazine sales are by subscription, while in the UK 80% go through newsagents. Americans are genetically wired to be hungry for information, and their farmers are hands-on, keen to innovate and introduce new ideas and methods. They have little fear of failure, and this causes them no major embarrassment. Contrast this with UK farmers, many of whom are conscious of their position in local society, hate to have egg on their faces, and cautious and suspicious of innovations that haven’t been given a vote of approval. So the British farmer takes the same decision as his neighbour. If green tractors are what people are buying, he’ll join the queue. If cows are black and white, he won’t be seen dead with a brown one!

2. Renewals were slow to materialise. Farmers dislike paperwork, and renewal forms come back months, often years, after they are sent out, having spent the interim on the floor of the Land Rover. Direct debit would solve the problem, but many farmers dislike the commitment. I started a credit card account with NatWest Streamline from the start, and offered automatic renewal on these, but card details were often soon out of date, causing more problems. Cheques are reliable, but, until recently, we paid Lloyds handsomely for processing them, sometimes up to 60p on a £12.95 cheque. Only since joining the Federation of Small Businesses and opening an FSB Co-op account has the business enjoyed the full value of cheques paid to it.

3. Quarterly publication provides a long shelf life, but also gives everyone the opportunity to share issues. It’s to be expected with a target market of farmers who want to save money, yet it’s surprising the extent to which people avoid buying copies. One Welsh farmer’s wife told me neighbours come from far and wide to go through the latest issue. Big companies have a single subscription which circulates around 20 or more readers, but the same company will give each exec his own Farmers Weekly.

4. Promoting subscriptions has been a problem. Advertising for subscriptions doesn’t work well; direct mail is far too expensive; and, after the demise of Farming News in the early 90s (who were kind enough to give me a good deal), an effective vehicle for loose inserts has been difficult to find.

5. The solution has been found by developing a high profile internet site, with online ordering through Protx, and putting the title into newsagents. Shop sales out-number subscriptions by a wide margin, but the margin is low. However, they have a valuable role - introducing the title, and the farm cost-cutting concept, to a wider audience, getting farmers and their wives at a time when they are thinking magazines, and expecting to pay money for them.

The future

Content, we are told, is key, and content is the one thing which Practical Farm Ideas has in spadefuls. It’s reflected in the website activity with an average of three minutes and four pages per visit; in the interest of magazine readers, many of whom keep every issue. Furthermore, the content dates very slowly, with tips featured in our first year still being relevant today.

This content is being used by other publications. I have a new editorial agreement with Profi International, published by the giant L-G company in Germany. The content is being used in farm conferences and farmers meetings, all which helps progress the idea of low cost agriculture and the use of the farm workshop as a profit centre.

The current financial crisis should, in theory, act as a support for subscription sales, as the interest-free deals on new machinery dry up and farmers and contractors find it harder to get finance. Whether this happens or not will depend on my ability to get the message across to the farming media and demonstrate the value of this content. The farming media is largely centred on the politics and economics of the business, and technical and practical ideas are sourced from the farm supply trade. There’s space and opportunity for the money saving ideas I have been researching and writing about for the past 17 years.

Farm Ideas has been a great project. Nearly two decades of meeting innovative and positive farmers throughout the UK and Ireland has taken me to places that I would never have dreamed of visiting. I’ve travelled through some of the most spectacular country imaginable to visit farmers in isolated communities who have provided a welcome and enthusiasm which is rarely found in most people’s world of work. The business, which was started with around £500 has been self financing, and never needed to borrow, and for the last eight years has had its own office building.

I know the magazine has benefited many people, saving them money, time and back-ache. Over the years, they have come to connect me, and the magazine, with the opposite of marketing hype. Farming is a curious business which involves a wide variety of people. Many have considerable assets, which provide useful collateral for borrowing, but quite frequently little income. Businesses are frequently handed down through generations; it’s not unusual to find the farmer I visit being the 6th generation, or even more.

Despite this traditional background, new methods can be quickly adopted. Artificial insemination was experimental in the 60s but a fact of life in the 70s, as were tramlines in corn. New methods that improve efficiency are vital to an industry which works on such slender margins. Farmers, wherever they live, have a real hunger for better, easier and more profitable methods. So part of the future is to satisfy this need for innovation, spreading the Farm Ideas net geographically wider, with the help of other organisations.

“Are there other sectors which would support an all-editorial publication?”, is a question I am often asked, and the answer is that it depends on the quality and value of the editorial. The content has to be unique, difficult to research, and of real interest to a wide population. The publisher needs to know a good deal about the business, something that does not always exist. Publishing and editing are generally considered to be skills on their own which can be applied across a wide subject range, but this doesn’t apply to these kind of titles.

The future may be spelt ‘I-N-T-E-R-N-E-T’, but the market for Practical Farm Ideas is quite traditional. Most farmers need paper copies which they can read in the farm workshop and share with others. Virtual magazines are still clunky and would test the patience of most readers.

The internet provides the opportunity to get the huge library of innovations available online, making international expansion feasible and allowing out of print contents to remain available.