Backyard Chickens and Window Box Gardens

The brand new magazine Modern Farmer is no more for farmers than Sports Illustrated is for professional athletes, or Everyday Food is for chefs. It’s for the growing numbers of farm enthusiasts. Lured by a handsome portrait of a rooster on the front cover, I picked up a copy when it came out last month to see what it’s all about.

As someone who grew up on a small farm (and now lives in a big city) I enjoy the satisfaction of being able to identify different breeds of ducks, recognize a blueberry bush well before it offers anything to harvest, or decide when an ear of corn is ready to pick. These basic pleasures shouldn’t be reserved for country folk, and Modern Farmer is here to clue in urban and suburban readers.

The premier issue spans an impressive breadth of topics, from mango grafting in Malawi to a “rurbanist” shepherds’ cottage in Tasmania. Its cheeky tone entertains without falling into snarky territory, and manages to sidestep waxing too devoutly about the virtues of agrarian life. What the articles may lack in depth, the magazine makes up for by showcasing the rich variety of contemporary agricultural practices — and practitioners. It has much to offer anyone who wants to know more about where their food comes from, or to begin getting their hands in the dirt — excuse me, soil — if only a window box.

A handbook section in the middle offers primers on soil and poop (yes, according to Modern Farmer “It’s Back,” as fertilizer) and an interview with “The Drunken Botanist” about her cocktail garden, among other things. A chicken keeper myself, I enjoyed the poultry portraits accompanying “The Right Bird For You,” but had my own opinions about best breeds. Game bantams for urbanites? They may be compact, but are a bit too good at flying…into a neighbors yard! The half-page on “How to Build a Straw Bale House” might not be of much help if you actually intend to use it as a blueprint, but it offers inspiration and basic explanation, which is what Modern Farmer does best.

Photos of muck-boots-as-fashion could be obnoxious, but paired with a story about the century-old Pointer workwear factory, they convey hearty American practicality. How many of you are wearing blue jeans as you read this? (Though I did object to a suggestion that one smart looking apron could travel “…from barn to kitchen,” yuck! Any sensible farmer knows you leave your barn clothes at the door.)

Even though I’m a meat eater, I put off reading the article on humane slaughter until last. It was probably the most thoughtful and thoroughly researched. The accompanying “Guide to Humane Labeling” makes me feel less anxious about navigating ethics on my next trip to the supermarket.

While true agrarians might be unlikely to subscribe to Modern Farmer, I think they’d be pleased to see their craft honored, and amused to know what other farmers around the world are up to (Thai durian specialist, meet English high school gardener). If you are actually about to start a goat dairy or market organic greens, subscribe to a trade journal. In the meantime, Modern Farmer is a fun read. I’ll be using it to plan some “agritourism” for my next vacation.

Modern Farmer is published quarterly, and can be found in Hudson News and Whole Foods stores. Individual copies, $7.99, and 2-year subscriptions $29.97 can be purchased online at modernfarmer.com, where you’ll find additional content.

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