The Story Behind ‘The Furrow’, the World’s Oldest Content Marketing
In its 118-year history, John Deere’s The Furrow has become something of a legend in two exceptionally disparate communities: agriculture and brand publishing. For farmers, it’s the agrarian version of Rolling Stone. For brand publishers, it’s a thing of wonder: a brand magazine born generations before the term “content marketing” was coined, which sees its back issues fought over—fiercely—on eBay.
“I’ve never worked for a brand magazine like this that people loved so much,” said current publications manager David Jones, the publication’s 14th leader. “Telling stories that folks enjoy reading—and that they can use in their own operations—has been the recipe since the beginning.”
Or, almost, reports John Deere’s manager of corporate history, Neil Dahlstrom.
“Looking back at our archives, you can see the changes, from an advertorial, to a general agriculture journal with farming hints and reprinted articles that look a lot like the Farmers’ Almanac, to today’s magazine that tells farmers how to run their businesses,” he said.
19th Century Content Marketing
The Furrow‘s first issue was printed in 1895, and its popularity quickly snowballed; circulation grew to reach more than 4 million consumers at its peak in 1912. Today, the magazine reaches about 570,000 consumers in the U.S. and Canada, and about 2 million globally, through the same legacy network of John Deere dealers that distributed the original magazine.
According to longtime Furrow art director Tom Sizemore, most consumers seem to still be reading the print edition, even as the digital age has changed many other farming routines.
“We keep hearing these stories about papers dying,” he said. “But in surveys of our readers, we’re told 80 percent still prefer paper to electronic—regardless of their demographic.”
Sizemore, who’s been a part of the magazine for the past 37 years, credits the magazine’s focus on the farmers themselves, rather than John Deere’s equipment.
“Even the most technical subject has to have a human story behind it,” Jones added. “We’ve always been able to convince the management that the content shouldn’t be about John Deere equipment. We’ve stuck to that over time.”
That—and the pictures.
“Over the years, we’ve convinced our bosses that people don’t read that much, and over time, the stories have gotten much shorter, the photos much bigger,” said Sizemore. “We’ve become a visual magazine in the past 30 years, more international, and we’re a bit more about the rural lifestyle.”
The magazine was originally delivered quarterly by the U.S. Postal Service’s then-new Rural Free Delivery system as a 10-by-13-inch newspaper that combined John Deere advertising, reprinted articles, and agricultural tips targeted at 17 different regional markets. Over time, it became smaller and thicker, and since 1958, it has featured full-color photographs.
“There are so many places people can get information, it’s just not worth us to do a story that someone else has done,” explained Sizemore. “We lean on the photos because no one else does.”
“I can’t say how much we spend every year on the magazine today,” said Jones. “But I can say that we spend a ton of money on the content—and it makes up for the higher double digits of our budget.”
In 1912, John Deere bought its first electric printing press to publish the magazine, spending what amounts to $850,000 in 2013 dollars on a press that printed in two colors and spat out 50,000 issues in eight hours.
Jones says readers all over the country are regularly buying and selling archives of the magazine printed by those presses—though he can’t find a copy of Issue One, even in John Deere’s extensive archives in Moline, Ill. “If you could, it’d be worth a pretty penny, I think.”
“When I came into this position last year, I was trying to familiarize myself with the brand on the editorial side, and I kept feeling a little like Harry Potter, lost in a new world,” Jones said. “[The Furrow] is a portal into a brand that people feel passionately about—to the level that kids are wallpapering their rooms with [our] tractors. … You just don’t run across that every day.”
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