The story of Farm Press started more than 50 years ago with an obscure Mississippi farm newspaper that had only a few hundred readers, and has since grown into one of the most respected agricultural publishing operations in the nation.

The four regional editions (Southeast Farm Press, Delta Farm Press, Southwest Farm Press, and Western Farm Press) now span the Sunbelt states with more than 250,000 subscribers in 20 states stretching from California to Delaware, continuing the from-day-one goal of providing timely, reliable information for production agriculture.

Additionally, Farm Press publishes two annual reference volumes, Southeast Agricultural Digest, and Delta Agricultural Digest as well as Grape, Tree Nut, and Vegetable/Processing Tomato crop guides for Western Farm Press and provides information from all the publications on multiple publication-based Internet sites as well as the recently launched Farm Press Daily on the Web.

In recounting the genesis of Western Farm Press, a lion's share of the credit for what the organization has become goes to former publisher William S. “Bill” McNamee, whose vision and determination took the original Delta Farm Press from its infancy in the post-Depression era to a multi-publication company serving the nation's top farmers and the agribusiness sector.

Now in retirement at Clarksdale, Miss., where the company's headquarters remain, McNamee recalls well when he went to work on Delta Farm Press in February 1946.

“It was sort of an ugly duckling that nobody had much time for,” he says of the supplement to the Clarksdale daily newspaper.

“I told the publisher I'd like to work on it. In those days, it was never more than eight pages and much of the editorial content was not even farm information, but syndicated consumer articles — essentially boilerplate.”

But, McNamee recalls, the part-time job proved fortuitous. “I was 22 years old. It was my first job. I never had another one.”

After his graduation from the University of Missouri in 1949, McNamee returned to the Mississippi Delta, resumed work with the farm publication, and stayed with it for the next 35 years, until he sold the company in June 1984.

Following his purchase of the farm publication in late 1967, there followed a 10-year period of great growth.

In the early 1970s, with Delta Farm Press having achieved spectacular success, McNamee felt there was opportunity to expand the concept to other areas of the Sunbelt, and Southwest Farm Press and Southeast Farm Press were launched in January 1974. In 1979 the final link in the Sunbelt agricultural publication chain was buckled into place with Western Farm Press (originally titled California-Arizona Farm Press).

In the inaugural edition, McNamee wrote that a “new weekly, tabloid format, farm publication has arrived for California and Arizona agriculture.”

It was a totally new publication for California, although Arizona farmers were already familiar with the Farm Press concept, since they had been receiving Southwest Farm Press.

McNamee knew, however, it would be a different ball game with agriculture in the West, identifying it in his introductory article as “by far the most diversified and most technologically advanced agricultural section in the United States and, quite probably, the world.

“We believe this type of farm publication…will be especially effective in serving this challenging areas with 260 (now 350) different crops, more than $11 billion (now $27.6 billion) in annual farm income and some of the best informed, and most sophisticated farmers in the United States.”

The editorial staff that started the publication remain today as writers for Western Farm Press. Editor Harry Cline and then associate editor Dan Bryant were experienced western agricultural journalists when NcNamee hired them to team with the late Joe Williamson as managing editor and John L. Montandon as advertising manager.

An office was established in Fresno in late 1978, on Gateway Boulevard in a business park near the Fresno airport.

McNamee promised the readers of the inaugural issue, Jan. 9, 1979 that Farm Press had the “editorial concept, the people and the facilities” to provide Western readers with a “top-notch, timely, and responsible farm publication every week.

“We will be covering all crops produced in this area from a production standpoint,” he wrote, although he acknowledged that to cover all aspects of Western agriculture every week would be impossible. “Of course we can't cover all 260 crops in every issue; no publication can or does. But we will deal with the most pressing subjects each week, regardless of which crop or geographical crop is affected.

“If you farm or serve farmers in this key two-state western area, you will find plenty of great interest and help every week, regardless of what you grow or where you grow it.”

McNamee had long recognized that it was the readers and the editors who determined the success of a publishing venture.

“Publishing is a people business,” he says. “Many fine, creative, hard-working people have, over the years, made the Farm Press organization what it is, and they have served agriculture well.

“Shortly after I sold the company, one of the key officials of the purchasing organization told me they had been steadily buying companies for several years, but had never found such a quality staff as at Farm Press.”

During the agriculture “boom” years of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, with the widespread adaptation of chemical agriculture and the move to larger, more efficient farm equipment, literally hundreds of companies, anxious to promote their products, provided an ever-growing roster of advertisers for the Farm Press publications.

“Everyone worked hard, and business was good,” McNamee says. “Most surveys by national companies showed Farm Press publications were the best-read. Our closest competitor was a 100-year old magazine in the Midwest. We were the ‘new kid on the block,’ competing against long-established publications, and that we were able to succeed so well reflects, I think, the validity of our concept.”

One standard from which McNamee never wavered: editorial quality and integrity.

“The key word was credibility. The reader had to believe the information he was getting was accurate and reliable, and that he could depend on it. The editorial content of many publications is in the hands of the advertisers. That was never the case for the Farm Presses, and our readers knew that.

“Farmers don't want to be misled about anything; when they are, they walk away and they never come back.

“I never wanted articles that were merely interesting; I wanted solutions, or information that might lead the reader to solutions for current and long term problems. I always viewed agriculture as a very serious business. It's one of the most basic American industries, affecting every segment of society. Agriculture needs to be efficient, productive, and prosperous, and I wanted our editorial content to constantly focus on those goals.”

He expresses a great debt to the Cooperative Extension Service and “the county agents, state specialists, and researchers who were and still are at the heart of our editorial content. They are people of the highest integrity, with the highest motivation, and encyclopedic knowledge. They have always been practical and fully in touch with the farmers. They not only knew agriculture, but they could communicate what they knew, and our publications could not have existed without them.”

A major editorial emphasis was farm policy, McNamee says. “We wanted details — hard facts, good or bad. We covered the farm organizations, so our farmer readers could know what was going on and how it was likely to affect them. We did all this in more length and detail than any farm publication in the nation.”

In 1984, McNamee sold Farm Press to Argus Press, following a “courting” period that saw bids from major media groups.

“The offers got larger, and I was getting older, so, I agreed to sell. I felt Farm Press would be in responsible, professional hands. I took a considerable amount of pride in the fact that the tiny seed I discovered in a small-town newspaper shop had grown into a major publishing company.”

With the sale, the late Tommy Keith, who had been McNamee's director of marketing, was named publisher and held that position until his resignation for health reasons in 1992. He was succeeded by John Montandon, who had for many years been a member of the Farm Press sales staff.

During Keith's and Montandon's terms as publisher, several new titles were acquired or launched, including three successful publications for professional turf managers, a publication for the Florida fruit and vegetable market, a farm equipment publication, and several annual reference volumes.

Intertec purchase

In January 1997, Farm Press was acquired by Intertec Publishing Co., which published dozens of specialty magazines, technical manuals, and reference works. In recent years, the Intertec name was absorbed and the overall company became Primedia, The company is the No. 1 special interest magazine publisher in the U.S., with 250 titles such as Seventeen, Automobile, Motor Trend, New York, Fly Fisherman, American Baby, Telephony and American Demographics; the No. 1 producer and distributor of specialty video, with 18 satellite and digital video product lines, including Channel One Network; and the No. 1 news and information group on the Internet, led by About.com.

The Agriculture Division, of which Farm Press is a part, publishes Soybean Digest, Farm Industry News, Beef, Hay and Forage Grower, and National Hog Farmer.

With the Intertec purchase of Farm Press, Michael A. Gonitzke, who had served as director of advertising for the southeast states, was named publisher, the position he continues to hold today.

“We've come a long way since Western Farm Press had its birth a quarter-century ago,” Gonitzke says. “Farming has changed tremendously, with perhaps some of the most monumental advances in the entire history of agriculture — and we've changed to reflect that evolution.

“But, we still recognize that it's the farmer who makes it all happen. Now, as has been the case over the past 25 years, Western Farm Press exists to serve the region's agriculture. We look forward with much enthusiasm to another quarter-century as a part of this vibrant, progressive profession.”

In the final paragraph of his introductory article in that first issue William McNamee wrote, “Agriculture is an exciting and challenging business and no industry is more basic to the economic health of this country and the world. California-Arizona Farm Press is pleased and honored to have the opportunity to serve this beautiful and tremendously productive area of our great nation.”

We are pleased and honored to have done so for 25 years and look forward to continuing to be a key part of western agriculture.

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com