by Doug Potts
LIKE most regional newspapers of the 1970s, the newspaper group I worked for at the time produced weekly pages of news and comment relating to farming. The intensity and importance of farming within the newspaper’s area of circulation dictated the number of pages and the advertising support to justify them.
Although these pages contained well-written material, they often lacked the closeness and regional relevance to serious farming matters, the subject not being the newspaper’s major interest, or that of the majority of its readers.
In 1957 the Treaty of Rome created the European Economic Community (EEC), or Common Market, with the six founding members – Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands – agreeing joint control over food production.
Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom joined the Common Market on January 1, 1971, while Greece was added in 1981, and Spain and Portugal came on board in 1986.
By the mid 1970s the organisation, now better known as the European Union (EU), was exerting a considerable influence on farming and crop production. It was also a period of major improvements in arable systems and machinery. Farms were joining into larger units and the number of farm workers fell dramatically.
Changes in British farming at the time were described as revolutionary, and in1978, according to the professor of social history at the University of Sussex, Alun Howkins, Britain gained total self sufficiency in temperate foodstuffs for the first time since the 1760s.
As local and regional newspapers prospered, and their circulations increased, the percentage of farming readers fell substantially, some to just 1%. This meant that suppliers of farm machinery and products advertising in newspapers found that for each pound spent to reach their market, about 99p was being wasted. In many cases, they would also need to use several newspapers to cover their franchised area.
Surely the time had come for newspapers to specialise in producing a special publication for farmers where the new world of farming within Europe could be reported and discussed without interfering with Joe Public’s sensitivities? Advertisers could invest their budgets in the knowledge that readers would be their existing or potential customers.
My research took me into many board rooms and sales meetings to explain my theories, and although often invited purely as a courtesy and out of curiosity, in each and every case the vote in favour was unanimous. These companies included Massey Ferguson, ICI, Fisons, Ford and International Harvester, plus many regional dealerships and suppliers.
Discussions also took place with the Ministry of Agriculture and Adas, as well as the NFU, about their understanding of how farmers received their information.
During this time I visited many farms and made friends discussing matters close to their interests. Their requirements were clear to me, as were the piles of unread national magazines stacked in the corners of their kitchens and offices.
I studied readership figures for the farming press at the time and found reasons to cast great doubts on their accuracy. The more I researched into the potential demand for Britain’s first A4 regional farming magazine, the more positive the response.
My employer, however, was far from convinced. Its earlier experience with a restricted circulation broadsheet provided the cold water to be thrown over such silly ideas. My bank manager was also particularly sceptical, but fortunately I had the support of my wife and family.
There was only one thing for it. To test my theory meant a major career change for a 50-year-old, and placing my house as collateral for a bank loan. I then reverted back to my early newspaper days in re-learning the facts and methods of production, negotiating with suppliers of artwork, typesetting and printing.
To achieve the design and quality I sought, and keep within budget, meant creating my own studio, but I had overlooked the strength of the printing unions and their insistence on telling me who to employ and what to pay them.
To explain this alone would take several pages, but for example a local union organiser would regularly knock on my office door on a Sunday morning, knowing I worked seven days/week, 12 hours/day and more – even one Christmas Day! They even threatened my printer.
The first issue of The East Anglian Farmers Guide appeared in September 1979 and contained two major features – Power in Action and Sprayers in Action. I believe my former employer now regrets throwing cold water over my ideas, although my collar still feels wet.
The early years proved particularly testing, but I was encouraged by the support of machinery dealers of all sizes and categories, and other suppliers to the agricultural industry.
One early indication of the magazine’s growing popularity came when postcodes were introduced. The Post Office insisted that we had to use them to get the most advantageous postage rates, so we explained to our readers that without them they would not get their copy of Farmers Guide. For several days after the request was published in the magazine, our post box was packed and the street outside our office was full of Land Rovers hand delivering that vital information.
Throughout the past 30 years the magazine has been fortunate in holding together a strong, hard-working, enthusiastic team selling advertising and producing Farmers Guide. We have sought and achieved technological advances in production techniques to ensure high-quality but with an eye to working economically.
The original intention of inviting those daily involved within the industry to provide editorial copy also worked. Their words reflect the real world recognised by our readers. Advertisers found their messages were reaching the right people, who themselves were taking advantage of our free advertising service to farmers – a facility also appreciated by machinery dealers who were rarely expected to take in part-exchanges.
On our 20th birthday we conducted our first independent reader survey and the results were outstanding. Included among the remarkable response figures was that 99% confirmed Farmers Guide as their number one choice for regular reading.
Such an achievement is surely a compliment not only to the Farmers Guide team, but also to the many friends of Farmers Guide that gave their time and energy to share their views with our readers. The list is long and distinguished, but to name just a few from the early days I must include Tony Clark, an award winning wheat grower, the late Ernest Cozens, an outspoken machinery man, and John Hodge.
From the most modest beginnings imaginable, Farmers Guide has grown in size and stature to serve, interest and entertain a wide and varied readership. I sincerely thank all those who have played a part in what I believe is an ongoing success story.