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Modern Farmer: A Movement In A Magazine. Live The Experience Of What We Eat & How We Live – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Editor-in-Chief, Sarah Gray Miller.

August 31, 2015

“I’m such a firm believer in print. I think one big mistake magazines make is they start looking to cut corners and they denigrate the actual physical print product and in this case Modern Farmer is a luxury item with a high cover price and the actual object looks and feels luxurious. And at the end of the day, the print is the legitimizer of everything that flows from it. Yes, we have a great website; we have a fantastic digital director running it and we’re all over social media, but the print is the true legitimizer and the hub from which everything else flows. And there’s just no substitute for sitting down with a magazine and a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, whatever your poison is, and flipping through it.” Sarah Gray Miller

modern farmer news Modern Farmer magazine celebrates mother earth and all of her mysteries. From what we eat, how it’s grown and what repercussions we might expect from the way we interact with our planet, to the subtlety of earth’s mission to sustain and keep us healthy. The magazine is a plethora of information that is both timely and valuable to the human species.

The magazine relaunched with the summer issue and while most things haven’t changed, the quality and aesthetic value of the magazine to name two; some things did, such as providing more service to the reader and a heavier, more substantial well of content.

The new editor in chief, Sarah Gray Miller, is a woman who knows quite a bit about the earth beneath her feet in her own right, having spent most of her career working for publications that revere it. Since January 2015, she has been at the helm of Modern Farmer and is passionately thrilled with the magazine’s interestingly hybrid nature.

I spoke with Sarah Gray recently and we talked about that fact, and how the magazine appeals to not only the most experienced of farmers and gardeners, but the backyard enthusiast as well. It was a fun and entertaining conversation and one I think you will highly enjoy.

So, sit back and get ready to do some “Modern” farming, without getting your hands dirty at all…

But first, the sound-bites:

sarahgraymiller
On the fact the magazine first-launched with much fanfare, then was relaunched recently under her leadership:
It’s hard for me to tell you much about what happened before I got here because I wasn’t around. So, I don’t know exactly what went down. What I can tell you is that I’m very lucky in that I came onboard at a really strong brand that caught an amazing wave in the culture and that was right on time, maybe even slightly ahead of its time because I feel like we’re getting even more traction now.

On the magnetic attraction she seems to have for magazines that deal with food, gardening and the country living-type experience: I’ve long been interested in food and the growing of food and lifestyles, so Modern Farmer is the perfect fit for me. Also, I love the fact that it is located in the Hudson Valley in Athens, New York. I’ve had a house up here for nine years now and for the longest time I was relegated to being just a weekender, and sort of dreaded going back to the city on Sunday nights.

On her goals for Modern Farmer and what direction she envisions for the magazine: I might start with the things that I’ve decided not to change. One is the look of the magazine. The production values are amazing. We have incredibly good paper and that we’re keeping. The design is gorgeous; the cover identity remains the same. I do think though that throughout the magazine there is a little more service; a little more in depth reporting. Every time we cover something we ask ourselves the really hard questions such as: why does this belong in Modern Farmer and nowhere else? And these questions are just something that the reader asks too.

On what she thinks the major determinate is for Modern Farmer to survive:
I do think it’s catching this wave in the culture where people care very much about that their food; I think that’s key. Even before advertising, keeping your readers happy and satisfying your consumers and your audience is vital. And I’ve long- edited from the reader’s point-of-view, with a pretty sharp BS meter for whether or not I as the reader understand it and I’m spurred to action, have the tools I need to take that action, etc. And then of course, advertising is part of the equation.

On whether she thinks a magazine called “Modern” Farmer can be successful in print:
I’m such a firm believer in print. I think one big mistake magazines make is they start looking to cut corners and they denigrate the actual physical print product and in this case Modern Farmer is a luxury item with a high cover price and the actual object looks and feels luxurious. And at the end of the day, the print is the legitimizer of everything that flows from it.

On whether her past career experience at places such as Garden Design and Country Living helped to prepare her for her job at Modern Farmer: Immeasurably. I owe the biggest debt to Dorothy Kalins at Garden Design who taught me pretty much everything I know and also the connections I made there and at Organic Style and Country Living were incredibly helpful.

On the challenges of doing cover photo shoots with animals versus people:
Oh, the things that I’ve learned about ducks that you wouldn’t believe. One thing and we laugh here, animals look like what animals look like, so there’s not a whole lot of photoshopping you can do in the same way as you can with celebrities and real people, so that’s different. They bring their own set of challenges however.

On what motivates her to get out of bed in the mornings:
I am so energized by this product that I just can’t tell you how much. There are two different things; one, I love a startup; I love a turnaround and I love indie journalism more than anything, so the fact that this is young and scrappy and a tiny team reminds me of what it was like at Garden Design, Budget Living and Saveur. I do not spend my days in corporate meetings; I’m actually back doing the work again. I’m getting to report things and write things and line edit content, which is thrilling and fun and exciting. It’s a bit of a rollercoaster.

On how her role as editor has changed from before the digital age and after:
I think all editors are busier now than they used to be for sure, because you’re looking at multiple channels, but at the end of the day it’s all about communicating information to your audience, whether you’re doing that on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or your website or in print. I really welcome the technology. I also love that it allows for more immediacy and more of a conversation and an exchange with the reader.

On how she decides on the animal that will grace the cover of the magazine each time: For one, we’re not covering animals that have already been covered, that’s a big part of it. And then it’s also looking at, this may sound silly, but with animals, just like fashion or food, there are definite trends. There is a ton of interest in duck eggs and duck meat; they’re the new chickens, if you will.

On whom she sees as Modern Farmer’s number one competitor: I don’t really see one out there. I know every editor likes to say that, but I don’t. It would have been easier for me, at say, Country Living, to name magazines that seemed like they were in a competitive set, but here the magazine is such an interesting hybrid; it’s covering food, gardening, farming and just the whole back-to-the-land lifestyle and it also contains the kind of articles that put it in more of a thought leader category, or a hard journalism category.

On anything else she’d like to add:
One question that I get a lot is: are we for farmers? And are farmers reading the magazine? And the answer is yes, we do have farmers reading us. And we do want to speak to those farmers and cover tools that will help them and cover plants that relate to farming, but we also have a lot of people who read the magazine who are merely backyard gardeners; who are want-to-be farmer-gardeners and dreamers and concerned, responsible consumers. So, we are talking to all of those constituents at the same time, which is challenging but incredibly rewarding.

On what keeps her up at night:
Everything keeps me up at night. (Laughs) Everything from the state of the plants, the pictures; did I put the wrong directional on that caption, just everything. You would think right after we go to press that I would have the calmest, most relaxed time, especially with a quarterly; that I would get a few really calm weeks. But that’s when I wake up in the middle of the night the most wondering did I catch everything; did I get everything right.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Sarah Gray Miller, Editor-In-Chief, Modern Farmer magazine.

Samir Husni: Modern Farmer was born with a big bang and it was the darling of the media and then something happened and now you’re in charge. Tell me about that journey.

Sarah Gray Miller: It’s hard for me to tell you much about what happened before I got here because I wasn’t around. So, I don’t know exactly what went down. What I can tell you is that I’m very lucky in that I came onboard at a really strong brand that caught an amazing wave in the culture and that was right on time, maybe even slightly ahead of its time because I feel like we’re getting even more traction now.

All of that said, everything can be improved, so the first thing that I did when I got here was to really try and elicit criticism; I wanted to hear from readers and people in the business about what they didn’t love; what they wanted to see changed, as well as what they did love and what the sacred cows were. The last thing I wanted to do was to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Samir Husni: This genre of magazines seems to attract you like a magnet; you’ve been with Country Living, Organic Style and Garden Design…

Sarah Gray Miller: I’ve long been interested in food and the growing of food and lifestyles, so Modern Farmer is the perfect fit for me. Also, I love the fact that it is located in the Hudson Valley in Athens, New York. I’ve had a house up here for nine years now and for the longest time I was relegated to being just a weekender, and sort of dreaded going back to the city on Sunday nights. So, to be able to live here full time and be in the media business is amazingly fortunate.

Samir Husni: Tell me about your plans and goals for Modern Farmer and where you expect to take the magazine now that it’s under your tenure.

modern farmer sub Sarah Gray Miller: I might start with the things that I’ve decided not to change. One is the look of the magazine. The production values are amazing. We have incredibly good paper and that we’re keeping. The design is gorgeous; the cover identity remains the same.

I do think though that throughout the magazine there is a little more service; a little more in depth reporting. Every time we cover something we ask ourselves the really hard questions such as: why does this belong in Modern Farmer and nowhere else? And these questions are just something that the reader asks too.

The cover animal; they wanted to know more and see more in depth coverage on that particular animal. So, instead of just a rundown of eight cute breeds, we’re actually telling people about how to go about raising ducks.

The magazine is ultimately for people who care greatly about their food and where it comes from and in the past you never saw a lot of food. And you may have noticed in the fall issue there is food and recipes connected to chefs and the causes that they’re advocating for. But I think it’s important to actually see food.

Samir Husni: You’ve been doing this for some time and you’ve seen a lot of magazines come and go; what do you think is the major determinate for Modern Farmer to survive?

Sarah Gray Miller: I do think it’s catching this wave in the culture where people care very much about that their food; I think that’s key. Even before advertising, keeping your readers happy and satisfying your consumers and your audience is vital. And I’ve long- edited from the reader’s point-of-view, with a pretty sharp BS meter for whether or not I as the reader understand it and I’m spurred to action, have the tools I need to take that action, etc. And then of course, advertising is part of the equation.

So, shortly after I came onboard, which was the very end of January 2015; we brought in a publisher and there’s an ad sales staff, that way I get to focus on making the magazine, which is great, and speaking to the readers. But there’s now a dedicated team out selling it to advertisers.

Samir Husni: What do you say to those people who might ask you; the name of the magazine is Modern Farmer, yet you’re publishing a print magazine, an ink on paper magazine, in these modern digital days; what would you say to them?

Sarah Gray Miller: I’m such a firm believer in print. I think one big mistake magazines make is they start looking to cut corners and they denigrate the actual physical print product and in this case Modern Farmer is a luxury item with a high cover price and the actual object looks and feels luxurious. And at the end of the day, the print is the legitimizer of everything that flows from it.

Yes, we have a great website; we have a fantastic digital director running it and we’re all over social media, but the print is the true legitimizer and the hub from which everything else flows. And there’s just no substitute for sitting down with a magazine and a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, whatever your poison is, and flipping through it.

Samir Husni: Needless to say, I agree with you 100%. (Laughs)

Sarah Gray Miller: (Laughs too). For obvious reasons, Mr. Magazine™.

Samir Husni: With your background; you’re from Mississippi, so you grew up in a farming state and you’ve worked with all of these magazines that have to do with food, farming as a way of life, and getting back to Mother Earth. How do you think all of that has helped and prepared you for the job you’re doing now?

Sarah Gray Miller: Immeasurably. I owe the biggest debt to Dorothy Kalins at Garden Design who taught me pretty much everything I know and also the connections I made there and at Organic Style and Country Living were incredibly helpful.

Another thing that I learned, probably at Garden Design, where you’re dealing with sort of technical, horticultural information is the ability to speak to the expert, the pro, the experienced person who’s been doing it forever and at the very same time talk to the enthusiast who might be new to the subject matter. And there’s a real trick for not talking down to people who already know what they’re doing, but giving the enthusiast context clues to understand the material.

Samir Husni: When you’re shooting your covers of all of the different animals, such as the duck on the summer issue; how difficult is it working with animals as opposed to working with celebrities and other people that you can actually talk to?

Sarah Gray Miller: (Laughs) Oh, the things that I’ve learned about ducks that you wouldn’t believe. One thing and we laugh here, animals look like what animals look like, so there’s not a whole lot of photoshopping you can do in the same way as you can with celebrities and real people, so that’s different. They bring their own set of challenges however.

Luckily with the duck they’re flightless, but they also have notoriously filthy bathroom habits. I tried to say that in the most polite way possible, but I’ll just put it this way; we went through a lot of white seamless paper onset during that shoot.

Samir Husni: What makes you tick and click and motivates you to get out of bed in the mornings and say it’s going to be a great day?

Sarah Gray Miller: I am so energized by this product that I just can’t tell you how much. There are two different things; one, I love a startup; I love a turnaround and I love Indie journalism more than anything, so the fact that this is young and scrappy and a tiny team reminds me of what it was like at Garden Design, Budget Living and Saveur. I do not spend my days in corporate meetings; I’m actually back doing the work again. I’m getting to report things and write things and line edit content, which is thrilling and fun and exciting. It’s a bit of a rollercoaster.

I also think this magazine has the potential to, and this may sound hyperbolic, change the world. This magazine is a force for good, which makes me proud to be a part of it and I get very excited and passionate about the stories that we do.

And we get to do long-form journalism, which is so rare. We’re assigning pieces that are 2,000 words long and very few magazine editors get to do that. And we get to cover important political issues. It’s smarter than your average lifestyle magazine.

Samir Husni: You were editing magazines before the dawn of the digital age…

Sarah Gray Miller: Yes, I think we were on AOL way back 20 years ago when email was brand new. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: You were editing before we became fully digitized and after; how has your role of editor changed during those years?

Sarah Gray Miller: I think all editors are busier now than they used to be for sure, because you’re looking at multiple channels, but at the end of the day it’s all about communicating information to your audience, whether you’re doing that on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or your website or in print. I really welcome the technology. I also love that it allows for more immediacy and more of a conversation and an exchange with the reader.

I always said that I’ve never been nor ever will be one of those editors who sit above the reader. I always like to get down on the floor and roll around with them. I’m in it with them. And I think social media, especially, allows us to have such a conversation with our audience. And get instantaneous feedback about what interests them or doesn’t interest them.

And then what the print product lets us do is take our time and sink our teeth into a subject, report it from every angle, lovingly line edit, making sure every single word is right, and create a gloriously deep, physical, luxurious product. But I also like the fast interaction that digital media provides. I consume information on all channels.

Samir Husni: When you’re considering your next cover subject; how do you decide which animal is up next?

Sarah Gray Miller: For one, we’re not covering animals that have already been covered, that’s a big part of it. And then it’s also looking at, this may sound silly, but with animals, just like fashion or food, there are definite trends. There is a ton of interest in duck eggs and duck meat; they’re the new chickens, if you will.

That same thinking went into our fall issue, where we’ve got a cover contest up online still, so I can’t tell you what it is yet, but it’s an animal that has sort of went through a boom-bust economy. And it’s back and people are farming it again.

There’s also a now-ness; we’re not just covering X because it’s summer and that’s the time to cover this particular animal or that one. We’re also thinking about what people are interested in right then.

Samir Husni: Who do you consider your number one competitor?

Sarah Gray Miller: I don’t really see one out there. I know every editor likes to say that, but I don’t. It would have been easier for me, at say, Country Living, to name magazines that seemed like they were in a competitive set, but here the magazine is such an interesting hybrid; it’s covering food, gardening, farming and just the whole back-to-the-land lifestyle and it also contains the kind of articles that put it in more of a thought leader category, or a hard journalism category. So, I don’t see a direct competitor.

Samir Husni: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

Sarah Gray Miller: One question that I get a lot is: are we for farmers? And are farmers reading the magazine? And the answer is yes, we do have farmers reading us. And we do want to speak to those farmers and cover tools that will help them and cover plants that relate to farming, but we also have a lot of people who read the magazine who are merely backyard gardeners; who are want-to-be farmer-gardeners and dreamers and concerned, responsible consumers. So, we are talking to all of those constituents at the same time, which is challenging but incredibly rewarding.

And I don’t know why it throws people, because Rolling Stone has people who are not rock stars who read the magazine. Farmers are the rock stars for this audience.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Sarah Gray Miller: Everything keeps me up at night. (Laughs) Everything from the state of the plants, the pictures; did I put the wrong directional on that caption, just everything. You would think right after we go to press that I would have the calmest, most relaxed time, especially with a quarterly; that I would get a few really calm weeks. But that’s when I wake up in the middle of the night the most wondering did I catch everything; did I get everything right. I take this job really seriously and I feel very responsible to the people who pay for the magazine and read it. It matters to me greatly that we get everything not just right, but great.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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