Founded in 1882, The Farmer grew from a small publication produced by Edward A. Webb and his wife to a large magazine with a circulation of over 175,000. For over 100 years, it was published by the Webb Company in St. Paul.
For much of its life, The Farmer reflected the mindset of its founder E. A. Webb. Webb was born in 1852 in India. His parents were Congregationalist missionaries there. His family returned to the United States when he was seven. He gained experience in journalism in Pennsylvania, but the dream of growing rich as a bonanza farmer drew him west.
In 1880, Webb moved to Fargo, North Dakota. He hoped to buy a wheat farm there. Because he arrived too late in the year to start farming immediately Webb worked on a newspaper in Fargo. He continued to work there as he was not particularly successful at farming. In 1882, Webb thought he would try his hand at raising poultry. He became the head of a local poultry farmers' association. He also acquired a magazine to be the organ for that group. The Northwestern Farmer and Breeder, a Monthly Journal for the Farm, Orchard, and Household became The Northwestern Farmer. Its title was further shortened to The Farmer in 1898. Webb would devote the rest of his life to its promotion.
After publishing his magazine in North Dakota for a few years, Webb decided that St. Paul would make a better headquarters. At that point, he had 2500 subscribers. Webb hoped that the larger city and its proximity to the University of Minnesota Agricultural School would help him build an even greater readership. According to some accounts, Webb was encouraged to move by his creditors. They thought that he would be better able to pay them back if he could use the resources afforded by a bigger city.
A supporter of the Farmers Alliance and Cooperative movements, Webb wanted his publication to be a resource for farmers. Typical issues, from the early twentieth century through the 1980s, included essays by agricultural professors at the University of Minnesota and advice columns on farming concerns. The farmers could write to the magazine with questions and know that they would receive expert advice in return.
The publication was not only devoted to serious agricultural news. It also sought to entertain farm families across the Northwest. Issues included comic strips, brainteasers for children, and order forms for patterns of the latest fashions. Spiritual advisors had regular columns. The magazine also supported corn-husking contests, which had become an annual sporting event by the 1950s. The Farmer continued to cover corn-husking contests through 1984.
The Webb Company grew along with its popular publication. Always interested in machines, Webb had acquired larger presses than The Farmer's circulation necessitated. During these years, Webb and his partners regularly sought new projects to keep the presses busy. In 1905, he bought a small magazine called The Farmer's Wife, which he published as a companion piece to The Farmer until 1939. In 1908, the Webb Company began producing telephone directories. Though Webb himself died in 1915, his two partners, Albert Harmon and Horace Klein, continued to build on his success.
Beyond publications, the Webb Company also ran an insurance business specifically for farmers. The Farmer's Protective Association, another service of the magazine, provided free legal advice to farmers and notified them about possible scams that were being used against them. Begun in 1928, the Helping Hand Club financially assisted children whose farming parents could not pay their hospital bills. In 1962, the Webb Company moved from its former location in downtown St. Paul, to a larger custom-built facility on the city's Shepard Road.
The company that E.A. Webb began with no more employees than himself and his wife grew to have more than three hundred employees by the time it was bought out in 1986 by the British Printing and Communication Corporation. In 1992, The Farmer, in an attempt to increase revenue, became USAgriculture. The next year, after being sold to Farm Progress, a publisher of agricultural and ranching magazines, The Farmer returned to its old name, but it is no longer produced in St. Paul.
The Webb Company Records, 1900–1992
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: This collection holds correspondence, photographs, published materials, manuscripts and other materials detailing the history of the Webb Company and The Farmer.
Baker, Robert Orr. The Webb Company: The First Hundred Years. St. Paul: The Webb Company, 1982.
The Farmer 100, no. 9 (May 1, 1982)
The Inside Story of the Farmer. St. Paul: The Webb Company, 1957
In 1890, Edward Webb moves production of The Northwestern Farmer to St. Paul to be in a larger city and close to the University of Minnesota Agricultural School.