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Celebrating 120 years of Successful Farming

While many things have changed about agriculture since our first issue in 1902, the heart of the industry remains the same.

When E.T. Meredith published the first issue of Successful Farming magazine 120 years ago this month, he and his team had a vision.

In that inaugural issue, they defined successful farmers as, “The ones who are making the most of their chances and are taking advantage of their opportunities — the fellows who are pushing to the front and making records for themselves in their chosen occupation. Our best farmers are those who get at the bottom of things and keep posted on the up-to-date methods employed in general farm work. In a word, our best farmers are thoughtful. They think, reason, plan, and out of it all is developed strict attention to business rules and methods and to the applying of them with courage and persistence.”

Articles in that first issue covered an exodus of farmers to the Canadian Northwest, how to select the most productive dairy cattle, ways to make farming profitable, European markets, tips for feeding hogs, and the importance of root development in corn.

Another article cited the 1900 census. It recorded over 5.8 million farms in the United States, with land and buildings worth a collective $3.5 billion. (By 2020, the number of farms had been reduced by more than half to 2,019,000, but the combined value skyrocketed to $2.7 trillion.)

Advertisements promoted the Vermont Farm Machine Company’s cream skimmer, steel wagon wheels from Wise Man’s Wagon, poultry incubators, Kenwood organs (the musical instrument), J.R. Watkins' vegetable anodyne liniment that claimed to save children and horses alike from several ailments, and a swamp-root tincture to cure kidney trouble. The Missouri Valley Seed Company offered readers 10 packages of vegetable or flower seed for 25 cents, and Montgomery Ward included an address to write for its free thousand page catalog.

Focus on Family

From the beginning, Successful Farming has been about more than crops and livestock. It has been about farm life as a whole. Fox wrote, “The most significant development, I think, traced through those volumes of Successful Farming, is the growing concern for a good life on the land.”

The premiere family section, then called the Home Circle, included poetry, jokes, instructions for canning fruit, income opportunities for country girls, pest control tips, and recipes for cream of celery soup and beef porcupine (bacon-covered meatloaf).

Life advice from Henry Van Dyke included, “Be glad of life, because it gives you the chance to love and work and to play and to look up at the stars,” and “Think seldom of your enemies, often of your friends, and every day of Christ.”

The editors closed the introductory column with this: “Herewith we present our readers with the first copy of Successful Farming. There is plenty of room for a live, up-to-date farm paper whose object is the discussion of farm matters employed in making farming a success. We intend to live up to the title of our paper by sending to our readers each month such information as will be helpful to them in carrying on the many duties on the farm and about the home. We want our paper to stand for successful farming in the truest sense of the word.”

50th anniversary

Successful Farming October 1952

Flash forward to the 50th anniversary issue in October 1952. In his column, Editor Kirk Fox shared his reverence for past issues of the magazine.

He wrote, “‘Drive slowly, you are crossing a billion years of the earth's history,’ reads a sign in our Western mountains. On the sides of those mountains, thrust up from mighty depths, can be clearly seen layers of rock representing the earth's major periods of development.

“It is with somewhat the same feeling — and with proper humility — that I sometimes pause before the library shelf where stand 50 years of bound volumes of Successful Farming. This October issue is the six hundredth monthly appearance of Successful Farming in the mailboxes of American families. Those 600 issues reflect the most significant periods in the development of agriculture that the world has ever known. Through their yellowing pages can be traced the first attempts to apply mechanical power on a massive scale.”

A Century of Success

SF 100th anniversary cover October 2002

We were thrilled to feature Ted, Tom, and Mell Meredith on the cover of our 100th anniversary issue in 2002. All three descendants of our founder were actively involved in the family publishing business and the family ranch in Wyoming.

Editor-in-Chief Loren Kruse wrote in that issue, “Inspired by our farming and business heritage, I believe we best engage the future by appreciating the past.”

In a nine-page retrospective celebrating our centennial, Managing Editor Gene Johnston wrote, “If Mr. Meredith, who died in 1928, could see us today, we think he’d be amazed at and proud of the ongoing success of his publishing business as well as the success of American agriculture through an incredible century.”

Traveling Through Time

When I joined Successful Farming in 1999, it didn’t take long before I stumbled upon the same shelf of old bound issues Fox mentioned, starting with 1902. I pored over them, gathering tidbits of knowledge and advice. I referenced them to write several articles over the years, sharing frugality tips from the Great Depression and All Around the Farm ideas that stood (and didn't stand) the test of time.

Revisiting these issues makes me feel so connected to our past editors and readers. I wonder if a future family editor will read my work in 50 or 100 years.

One of my favorite ongoing projects has been researching vintage magazine covers and compiling them into themed collections for our website, like favorite Christmas covers, those that celebrate Mom, and springtime covers.

I love looking beyond the cover, learning about the artist or photographer, and examining every detail from clothing to machinery to kitchen appliances. There are enough beautiful covers in our archives that I'll be able to continue this project for the rest of my career.

Bring the past into the present

Darlene Graf now

In the May 2018 issue of Successful Farming magazine, I wrote an article on the important role of farm women during wartime. It included a photo of our September 1943 issue, with 17-year-old Darlene Graf on the cover. She helped run her family’s Nebraska farm when the hired man left for a Defense job, as many hired men did.

A few days after publication, I received a letter from a friend of Graf’s, who had seen that same framed cover hanging in her apartment. I was so happy to connect with and interview Graf for our September 2018 issue, exactly 75 years after her first feature.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

In 1952, Fox wrote, “Successful Farming has tried faithfully — and shall continue with equal zeal — to give you the information you need to make your own decisions. Forgive me if I seem to be approaching the emotional level as I pause before that shelf of books and reflect upon what has come to farm life in 50 years.”

He continued, “All those who have made those records of agriculture in the 50 volumes of Successful Farming believed thoroughly in the future of the farm and farm folks. Those of us who carry on know great changes may come. But we believe steadfastly in the future of the family farm and all those who elect to spend their lives on it.”

Mr. Fox, I promise you today’s editors feel the same.

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