Bonnie Tsui is a contributing writer to CityLab. She writes frequently for The New York Times and is the author of American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods.
A new print quarterly and website dedicated to the people and issues around where our food comes from.
The first story published by Modern Farmer magazine includes a recipe for something called "Burn You Down to the Ground Superhot Chile Brownies." Which is to say: The Old Farmer’s Almanac this is not, though both publications do express a great shared interest in the weather.
Founded by Monocle and T: The New York Times Style Magazine alum Ann Marie Gardner, Modern Farmer is a new print quarterly and website dedicated to the people and issues around where our food comes from. The content is global, the tone smart, and the aesthetic clean and visually driven (Gardner brought on Luise Stauss, former photo editor at The New York Times Magazine, as photo director and tapped Brooklyn-based MGMT design to help conceptualize the magazine’s distinctive look).
That eye for the sophisticated-yet-super-democratic is key to understanding what’s behind Modern Farmer. "It doesn’t mean you have 1,000 acres of land -- it means you care about where your food comes from," Gardner says. "And if you care about food, it doesn’t mean you’re a foodie. We like potato chips here." In other words, it takes time to march past people’s conceptions of what food means, but Gardner is intent on documenting the changes as they happen, with eclectic stories that are relevant to a growing population: how to grow your own cocktail, the wild pig explosion, vertical gardens, how to talk about soil at a dinner party.
Though the website doesn’t launch until early April and the print issue hits newsstands on April 16, Modern Farmer gave us an exclusive early look. The opening story in the print issue visits an organic farm outside Shanghai; writer Justin Bergman found that as a reaction to food scares, organic has become more appealing to Chinese consumers, with purposefully organic farms and CSAs starting to take form:
Plus, there’s a "plagues and pests" feature on the aforementioned wild boar epidemic hitting a backyard near you:
Finally, one of my favorite artists, Wendy MacNaughton, illustrates a package about seed as currency at the Petaluma Seed Bank in Petaluma, California (it actually resides in a former bank building):
On the eve of shipping issue number one, I caught up with Ann Marie Gardner for a quick conversation about her new project:
From the looks of the line-up in the inaugural issue, a key idea of what distinguishes Modern Farmer is that there’s no urban vs. rural divide anymore when it comes to the people and issues around where our food comes from. The interest has widened dramatically; people want to make connections, no matter where they live. Can you talk a bit about that?
I think you’re absolutely right. How can you separate where your food comes in terms of "rural" and "urban"? Whether you live in the country or in the city, I think you crave a stronger connection to nature and the land, all of the things that are lacking from simply buying packaged food in a store. At Modern Farmer, we’ve made a conscious decision to not differentiate between urban and conventional farming. In a global economy, the food on our plates is often a mess of local and far-flung elements -- lettuce from our garden, almonds from California, maybe dried apricots from Turkey. We wanted to tell stories about the entire supply chain.
How did the seed for Modern Farmer get planted, so to speak? You’ve long documented life in cities around the world, and I wonder how that has colored your personal approach.
During my travels around cities for Monocle and The New York Times, I would meet all kinds of people and I would sense this longing for a different life, a life closer to nature. When I would tell them that I lived in the country with dogs and could see eagles and foxes from my kitchen window, I was always surprised to discover how many people dreamt of a life like that. Over the last three to five years, I was actually starting to meet more and more people all over the world who went from longing to be in the country to actually doing it.
And that’s what planted the seed for me. I saw this huge cultural shift happening before my eyes. People actually returning to nature, to land, to building, growing, raising and cultivating and all the knowledge and empowerment that comes with that. This was three years ago and I already worried I would be too late to start Modern Farmer. I didn’t want to miss the global movement and I’ve been so impatient to make this happen. I think people have been waiting for this information to be presented in a really interesting, global, newsy, and even entertaining format and now we’re here to do that with Modern Farmer.
What do you want the magazine to do that no one else is doing right now? You have ambitious plans to launch an event series and marketplace to pair with the publication. What’s your vision for how those things will go together?
It’s true -- our plans are ambitious. I think that we want to combine a lot of existing bits and pieces into a workable 21st century media model, where elements like events and e-commerce are thoughtfully integrated into more conventional editorial offerings.
Any city-specific stories and issues that you’re tackling that you want to tell us about?
We have a fantastic story about how the middle class of Shanghai is turning to small-scale organic farming after a series of food scares has made many in the city doubt the industrial food system in China. We also look at rooftop farming in Boston, the rise of art farms on brownfield developments in Buffalo, N.Y., and seaweed farming happening right of the coast of Long Island. Once you start looking, it’s amazing how much food production is happening in or very near the world’s major urban areas.
Please tell me more about those baby farm animal power rankings. Who says farming can’t be funny?
The Baby Farm Animal Power Rankings are deadly serious, especially now that we’ve entered into the playoffs!
We want to talk about important issues, but we want to have fun doing it, and we want our readers to have fun too. Growing food is one of the most important things you can do, but it’s also dirty and messy and therefore inherently humorous. If you talk to farmers, or read their blogs and Twitter feeds and everything else, you find so many hilarious people. There are these amazing guys in Kansas, the Peterson Farm Bros., who do really funny YouTube parody videos. Farmers love to post funny photos from when a tractor tips over or their herd gets loose. There was a farmer who used a manure spreader to put a giant heart on his fields as a Valentine’s Day gift to his wife. He made his wife a giant Valentine’s card out of crap. That’s really, really funny.