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A History of Farm Progress Companies

Prairie Farmer, the nation's oldest farm publication, was founded in 1841 by a young Easterner, John S. Wright, who moved to Chicago when the city was becoming a marketing center for grain, livestock, and other farm products.

Wright became known as the Prophet of the Prairies. He used his magazine for worthwhile causes; for example, he drew attention to illiteracy and the need for better schools. During the panic of 1856, he couldn't pay his printing bills and lost the magazine. Prairie Farmer had become well established by this time and Wright left a legacy for others to uphold.

The magazine changed hands several times during the next 50 years. Although some owners were more successful than others, each experimented with different types of agricultural and horticultural information. Circulation grew, and for a short while after the Civil War an edition was even printed in German to serve the influx of people from Germany who were settling on Midwest farms.

Map publishers Rand McNally and Company bought the magazine in 1882. An editor named Orange Judd improved the quality and increased the number of editors. The magazine began earning a profit again. After Judd left in 1888, its style and direction slowly changed.

In 1908, Prairie Farmer changed from a weekly to a semimonthly publication. The magazine suffered some lean years with small issues until Burridge D. Butler bought the publication in 1909. Butler was an enterprising former newspaperman who immediately sought an editor who could help him make Prairie Farmer a thriving magazine. In 1911, he hired Clifford V. Gregory, a 27-year-old Iowa State College graduate from Wheaton, Illinois.

During the next 26 years, Butler and Gregory revitalized the magazine into the leading farm publication in Illinois and Indiana. They upgraded it by using higher quality paper and more photographs. They localized news about farmers and created columns on improving animal and crop production.

In 1928, Butler purchased the Chicago radio station WLS from Sears Roebuck and Company for $250,000. Butler considered Prairie Farmer and WLS as partners in expanding efforts to server farmers in Illinois and Indiana. The 50,000-watt station served a balance of farm programs and wholesome entertainment to farm families as far as 500 to 600 miles from Chicago. Before long, Prairie Farmer was putting out editions-for Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin farmers. The American Broadcasting Company (ABC) purchased the company from Butler's heirs in 1959.

ABC's primary intent was to acquire broadcasting outlets but soon realized the financial strength of farm magazines, particularly their strong profits during the spring months. ABC then started acquiring trade and consumer magazines for its publishing division. Miller Publishing Company, based outside of Minneapolis Minnesota, was purchased as a part of this acquisition strategy, and was included with Farm Progress to form The ABC Agricultural group in 1983.

Farm Progress made significant design and production changes in its magazines in the mid-1980s. They were converted from their 10-x 14-inch page size with limited four-color and uncoated paper to the standard magazine page size of 8-x 10-inch with four-color availability and slick coated paper. These enhancements were combined with a selective binding process that customized the content of the publications to readers. The selective binding process is driven by a unique database of subscriber information that allows marketers to target various segments of the audience. These innovations, combined with the company's dominant presence in large-scale outdoor farm shows, made the company a leader in agricultural publishing and marketing.

The company and its parent, ABC were also involved in many acquisitions that marked the business climate during the 80s and 90s. In 1986, Capital Cities purchased ABC and combined its publishing divisions together to form the Midwest Publishing Group. Then in 1991, Farm Progress acquired the Harvest Publications from Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich (HBJ). The company expanded its Midwest presence to a national leader in agricultural publishing.

Later in 1995, ABC was purchased by the Walt Disney Company. Due to the strategy of maintaining a core of like-business assets, Disney sold many of its publishing companies in 1997. Accordingly, Farm Progress was sold to the Australian company, Rural Press Limited and combined its US entity, Rural Press USA with the Farm Progress publications. In 2007, Rural Press in Australia merged with Fairfax Media.  In 2012, Farm Progress was sold to Penton Media Inc.