Pick up a magazine published by a heavy equipment manufacturer, and you’d
probably expect to find coverage of combines and backhoes.
What might surprise you is an article about a corner of Virginia where
country music was born, or a story on “homesteading the ultimate waterfront property”—a lighthouse.
The Illinois company John Deere, known
for its farm and construction equipment, produces two publications that
delve into topics that its readers care about—rather than pushing products
or highlighting customers.
As organizations edge into brand journalism or non-promotional content
marketing, they’re finding themselves on rich soil that long ago was
pioneered by John Deere’s The Furrow magazine and its
younger sibling Homestead.
“Part of what has made both magazines so successful is that we do not write
stories about ourselves,” says David G. Jones, editor of The Furrow and
Multiple generations of content
Started in 1895, The Furrow is the granddaddy of corporate publications. It
is written for farmers involved full time in production agriculture. The
journal is delivered eight times a year on paper (seven in Canada) and has
an online presence as well.
Homestead, by contrast, primarily targets suburban and rural property
owners and “rural lifestyle enthusiasts.” Founded in 2000, the
five-issues-a-year publication is a newbie compared with its older sibling.
Several publications have credited John Deere with prefiguring current
content trends. Forbes
saluted The Furrow as “content marketing before content marketing,” and Marketing Land
headlined a story, “
Is John Deere The Original Content Marketer?”
“In marketing circles, The Furrow is a legendary entity, the Adam of brand
The Content Strategist stated, adding that its online version is “a gorgeous site with lots of
white space and surprisingly few pictures of tractors.”
John Deere started The Furrow to provide reliable information that many
farmers couldn’t get elsewhere. That has made it a trusted voice with a
global audience, Jones says.
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The Furrow’s circulation is greater than that of any other ag publication
in the world, Jones says, though he won’t disclose the number. Because the
average U.S. farmer’s age is about 58, The Furrow’s readers tend to prefer
having a print edition to thumb through.
A conversation with your uncle
“There are a lot of farm magazines out there,” Jones says. “They’ll all
tell you what you’re doing wrong. We just don’t go that route. We don’t
take that tone. Our editorial tone has been described as ‘a conversation
with your favorite uncle,’ and that’s just how we try to run our show.”
John Deere was plowing the ground of thought leadership long before the
executive scramble to write op-eds for Forbes or book a speaking gig at
TED. For example, The Furrow led the way in covering soil health and played
a significant role in the attention that issue is getting nowadays, Jones
“It’s going back to the dirt,” Jones says.
The company itself has a long history. Founded in 1837, John Deere
manufactures agricultural, construction and forestry machinery, along with
diesel engines and lawn care equipment. It reported an annual revenue of
$27 billion in 2016.
Jones says company leaders embrace the editorial policy, and he has never
been seriously challenged regarding the approach. Only occasionally does
someone buttonhole an editorial staffer to say, “Hey, there’s a great
customer outside Sheboygan, Wisconsin, that runs a fleet of John Deere
equipment, and boy, we should write a story about him.”
Jones and two other full-time employees produce the magazines in
conjunction with seven contract freelancers who supply the stories. Three
of those writers are full-time farmers, and the rest have been around
agricultural journalism for decades, Jones says.
Jones does not give them assignments. He considers his writers the experts,
and he rarely rejects their ideas.
“These folks are acknowledged experts in the field of production ag,” Jones
says. “We lean on them. They tell us what to put us in the magazine. We do
not tell them.”
Another story looks at
agriculture in a refugee camp in Rwanda, where migrants from Burundi scratch out a living. The article is reported
by an African agricultural journalist living in exile.
“One of the things we continually find is the similarity in the challenges
farmers face around the world,” an editor’s note at the top of the story
It’s easy to see farm applications in a story about
field efficiency and the debate between a wider planter or faster planting speeds. If you’re
wondering whether to let the kids toss firecrackers into the dry field
behind your farmhouse, an article on
the advantages of burning native northern prairies might be worth factoring in.
Even seemingly off-topic stories, however, have thematic relevance. Take
the story on the lighthouses, which ran in Homestead. Turns out people who
live in old farmhouses feel an affinity for those who occupy old
lighthouses. For one thing, both groups tend to know how to rip out a room
and restore it.
They also share “a strong connection to place,” Jones says. “It involves a
lot of hard work—work by hand. We just feel these are themes that resonate
with an agricultural audience. As you might imagine, these are rather
As for return on investment, the only justification the editorial staff has
ever had to provide is that readers trust the magazine (surveys prove this)
and are John Deere customers.
“Our subscriber base,” Jones says, “is responsible for a significant
percentage of ag and turf equipment sales.”