Niche Publishing

Arkansas Alt Weekly's Food & Farm Niche

Rebekah Hardin, associate publisher of Food & Farm, calls the magazine a “farmer’s phone book.” Editor Michael Roberts says it’s a “clearinghouse for everybody from grower to seller to the chefs who are using it in their restaurants.” Patrick Duprey reports on the journalistic spin on the "buy local" movement.  
NetNewsCheck,

No one’s accusing Arkansas Food & Farm, the latest content play from the nearly 40-year-old indie outlet Arkansas Times, of not having a target audience.

Rebekah Hardin, associate publisher of Food & Farm, calls the magazine a “farmer’s phone book.” Editor Michael Roberts says it’s a “clearinghouse for everybody from grower to seller to the chefs who are using it in their restaurants.”

Food & Farm is a journalistic spin on the “buy local” movement that’s designed to connect buyers, mainly restaurants, grocers and consumers, with specialty crop providers. It’s a joint product of Arkansas Times Publishing and the Arkansas Agriculture Department, serving as the print voice of the department’s Arkansas Grown program and functioning as a one-stop-shop database for local foodies.

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Food & Farm’s focus is now on the print side, though a Web presence, ArkansasFoodandFarm.com, hosts all the debut issue’s stories. The Times relies on its food blog, Eat Arkansas, for more frequent dining news, Roberts says, though he’d like to add digital-only content in between issues in the next year.

“When a farm has the good stuff,” Roberts says, “I want to be able to tell folks where to go get it.”

To help subsidize production and distribution of the magazine, the Ag Department funnels $15,000 in grant money to Food & Farm per issue, according to Arkansas Times publisher Alan Leveritt. Including display ads, the first issue generated about $80,000 in total revenues, he says.

Not bad for “small-time publishers,” as Leveritt calls the Times, with a skeletal staff.

“Arkansas is … small enough that people know people, and get a kick out of seeing the tomato stand down the street get put in a magazine, or the guy who raises cattle get a write-up,” Roberts says.” [To] become an advocate for those folks means becoming an advocate for the very basis of our economy in this state.”

Brand Connections

The project hits close to home for Leveritt, who says he has grown specialty crops on his family home place for 20 years. “Arkansas Food & Farm is the happy combination of my two loves, publishing and farming,” he writes in the magazine.

But it’s also, by all indications, a practical application of media scholar Ken Doctor’s “itch the niche” theory — a statewide publication that extends beyond regional competitors in Central and Northwest Arkansas to the fields, aisles and kitchens of 500+ partners. 

“It’s a niche that basically supplies our farmers markets, our grocery stores, and our chefs and restaurants with [what’s] going to end up on our tables,” Hardin says.

Adds Roberts: “[The focus is] almost too broad in the sense that we’re trying to talk about food from when it’s planted all the way to when it hits the plate. That’s a whole spider web of interactions across the board.”

The play is apparently compelling enough to have drawn the attention of at least one partner, an organic farmer and Little Rock native, outside the state. Food & Farm is trademarked nationally and by state, Hardin says, and a partner publication — dubbed South Florida Food & Farm — will go live by year’s end.

Under a licensing agreement, the Little Rock office provides consulting, sales training and Web support to the Palm Beach partner. Leveritt says he’d be open to more partners, but has no formal plans for additional expansion.

“The idea that we’re going to do some sort of franchise would absolutely contradict local,” Leveritt says. “We’re not interested in doing that.”

In Arkansas, the magazine itself — the first of two issues this year — is a mix of feature stories — say, a profile about a local farm or restaurant that emphasizes local crops in its cuisine — display ads and listings.

The listings, sharing pages with display ads, assume about half the issue’s pages. Farms are mapped by region; grocers, farm-to-table restaurants, nonprofits, breweries and more are listed separately.

Keeping this all-encompassing directory current and comprehensive, Hardin and Roberts say, may be the publication’s greatest challenge moving forward. (Arkansas food producers are encouraged to sign up, for free, on ArkansasGrown.org.)

The 80-page debut issue printed last month. Hardin says 40,000 copies were distributed across the state, primarily through farmers markets. It’s free to read in print and online. Roberts says the next issue is expected out next month.

Looking ahead, Hardin says, they’ll look to further monetize Food & Farm through digital and social media sponsorships. She also says they’d like to host Food & Farm events across the state to connect with the community.

In editorial, Roberts says, he expects four-six print issues in 2015, along with expanded listings and a heavier emphasis on digital.

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