Originally devoted to agricultural issues in the Tar Heel State, the Progressive Farmer started publication in Winston, North Carolina, on February 10, 1886. Farmer, Confederate veteran, newspaperman, and former North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture, Leonidas L. Polk (1837-1892) founded the journal.
The periodical resembled other Polk editorial ventures, most notably the Farmer and Mechanic, a publication of the Department of Agriculture in 1877-79. From the beginning, Progressive Farmer offered essays with practical advice for farm families. The paper also included poetry, politics, and humor that related to farming issues. In 1891, for instance, the tales and sketches of “Zeke Bilkins,” a fictional farmer with political interests, appeared regularly. A common practice of “Uncle Zeke” was to use the newly invented telephone to call, pester, and debate politicians on popular and contentious issues. “Uncle Zeke” always won.
Polk and his Progressive Farmer were widely credited with creating an agricultural school in North Carolina. The journal frequently included essays calling for the establishment of a separate college for agriculture and the mechanical arts under the Morrill Act of 1862. The University of North Carolina had been collecting the allotted Morrill money since 1875, but the institution never created a department of agriculture. To meet an increasing need, the North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (currently North Carolina State University) opened its doors in 1889.
During the 1890s, the journal gained national importance and experienced leadership changes. Between 1890 and 1892, as Polk’s fame spread—he was president of the National Farmers’ Alliance and rising star of the burgeoning Populist Party—so too did the popularity of the Progressive Farmer, the official organ of the Farmer’s Alliance. When Polk suddenly died in 1892, John L. Ramsey of Statesville, who had been managing the periodical in Polk’s absence, took over as editor. In 1897 Ramsey hired a young 16-year old farm boy from Chatham County named Clarence H. Poe (1881-1964) to work for the Progressive Farmer. In 1899, at the age of 18 and with little formal education, Poe became editor of the periodical, now located in Raleigh.
Poe ushered in many changes that encouraged continued growth. By 1908, Progressive Farmer changed from a weekly newspaper with a readership of 5,000 to a magazine with over 36,000 subscribers; separate editions were printed for the Mid-South and Southeast. Despite this success, the journal struggle financially. So, Poe and three partners bought the popular magazine for $7,500 in 1903. Their partnership became known as the Agricultural Publishing Company, and later as the Progressive Farmer Company. In 1911 the growth and expanded readership of the journal necessitated that the main office be moved from Raleigh to Birmingham, Alabama. Poe, however, remained in Raleigh and directed company operations from there. By the 1930s, Progressive Farmer had absorbed numerous small farm papers and magazines, thereby increasing circulation to 1,400,000 and emerging as the major farm periodical in the South.
As the Progressive Farmer grew, it featured stories by famous authors such as Jesse Stuart (1907-1984). Indeed, the periodical’s emphasis on books and the importance of reading, prompted Edward K. Graham (1876-1918), president of UNC to comment: “It combines culture and agriculture.”
As the number of farmers and farm laborers declined, so too did readership, yet the editors adjusted to a changing market. Under the leadership of Alabamian Emory Cunningham (1921-2000), president of the Progressive Farmer Company, later renamed the Southern Progress Corporation, the Progressive Farmer had a circulation of 1,000,000 in the 1970s. Adjusting to market changes, the company introduced a successful periodical, Southern Living. The editors had started focusing more on “the unique challenges and joys of living in the country” and used that approach in marketing Progressive Farmer. In 2004, the Progressive Farmer maintained a sizable circulation of 630,000.