Digging Deeper


Even Oprah's a farmer these days

Have you seen this month’s cover of the Oprah magazine?

Seems farming and local food are so popular, even a celebrity billionaire is getting into it. (Though most of the farmers I know don’t work in Maui, wear $245 hats or color-coordinate their outfits with their personal fitness expert.)

Oprah’s not alone. Raising your own food or living in the country – called the “rural lifestyle” by trend watchers – is growing as fast as, well, sweet corn under a June sun.

Numbers are hard to come by, said Kristi Moss, senior media director at Paulsen Marketing, an agribusiness agency in Sioux Falls, S.D.  She estimates that 11 million to 25 million people in the U.S. fall into this segment, depending on definitions that include urban ruralism, rural urbanism or country life.

“The urban ruralist walks on concrete but dreams of grass,” Moss recently wrote on her blog.

Those millions of people are the target audience for “Modern Farmer,” a glossy digital and print magazine that debuted last month. It’s not aimed at the large production farmer here in the Midwest, but rather, those folks who are attracted to articles like “How to Grow a Cocktail,” or an expose on the humane slaughter of animals.

“Modern Farmer” was founded by Ann Marie Gardner, a New Yorker who has written for the New York Times and “Monocle.” Here’s her definition of the modern farmer, courtesy of “Bon Appetit:”

“It's the third generation farmer who grew up on a farm, it's the people who have left cities to farm, and it's the people who might dream about farming, and they grow basil on their windowsill or fire escape, or they have a weekend house and they do it on the weekends. It encapsulates a lot of people, from farmers to aspirational farmers."

Several other publications sprung up before “Modern Farmer,” including “Living the Country Life,” a growing empire with radio and video enterprises based in Des Moines, Iowa, and catering to what it says is a large market of 27 million rural property owners with $32 billion in annual spending power. Features on fancy chicken coops or “25 adorable baby farm animals” rope in folks with an average household income of $85,420 and a median 30.5 acre home.

These magazines sprout up, of course, because of that large market. Then there are those publications that are created just to help out those businesses that are targeting the needs of the rural lifestylers.

Lessiter Publications, the publisher of a farm equipment journal, saw an opening five years ago as the backyard or small farm owner became a significant market niche. The company launched “Rural Lifestyle Dealer,” a magazine aimed at the businesses who sell small tractors, tillers, chainsaws and other tools.

The equipment dealers who read the magazine are looking for “rural lifestylers” – as well as LPOs, or large property owners, as they are known in the business, said Lynn Woolf, managing editor of “Rural Lifestyle Dealer.”

“When people move to the country, there are a lot of people who just want to be away from the city,” she said. “But I think there are a lot of people who want to be connected to the land. Maybe they’re not growing a crop, but they are maintaining an acreage, growing animals, doing projects and having a beautiful place.”

Although the dealers took a hit with the economic crisis of 2008, the market is coming back, Woolf said, and dealers are optimistic. A recent survey showed that nearly 90 percent of dealers serving the rural lifestyle equipment market believe their total revenues will be as good as or better than what they saw in 2012.

So the rural lifestylers have a growing market share – and a lot of growing work to do. As for Oprah’s farm, although the headline says she and her health expert will be “rolling up their sleeves, tilling the soil, and sharing one heck of a beautiful bounty,” I’m betting she won’t be getting her hands dirty.