Stark County farmer and race car driver Mark Thomas was on the first cover of Ohio’s Country Journal 30 years ago.

Three decades of focus on Ohio agriculture

By Tim Reeves, initial editor of Ohio’s Country Journal

            While the first edition of Ohio’s Country Journal was unveiled in September of 1992 at the Farm Science Review, the seeds of the OCJ were actually planted in spring 1976 in the Agri-Broadcasting Network offices on Riverside Drive, Upper Arlington. The late Ed Johnson had been operating the ABN for several years and had built the ABN into Ohio’s premier radio farm and agricultural news network. I was just getting ready to graduate from The Ohio State University in March 1976 with a dual degree in agricultural economics and journalism. Since The Ohio State University did not have an agricultural communications major at the time, those of us interested in a career in ag communications had to major in something else and take journalism/communications courses as our “minor.” I actually graduated with as many journalism/communication courses as I had ag econ courses!

            We had a handful of students keenly interested in ag communications and as a group, we and our academic advisors decided that we needed to branch out from the university and engage in as many ag comm-related internships, part-time jobs, etc. as we could. I was able to obtain two internships: a summer with the state-wide Landmark Cooperative and the other one with EJ and the ABN. At the ABN, my job was sending each day’s farm/rural radio broadcasts to the more than 35 radio stations across Ohio which received Ed’s daily noontime broadcasts. I would call each station, identify myself, and they would then record EJ’s pre-recorded broadcast over the telephone connection. Each station was contacted individually. It took about 90 minutes, on average, to make this happen five days a week in the noontime slot.

            I would arrive about 11 a.m. and would normally be done by 12:45 p.m. I was able to sandwich the ABN job in between classes, which wasn’t easy when I had a 1 p.m. class on ag campus! I never got a speeding ticket driving down Lane Avenue, but came awfully close more than once.

            One day, about four weeks before graduation, my 1 p.m. class had been canceled and as I was preparing to leave the ABN office, I saw EJ was in his office. That was unusual, because normally he would either be out to lunch, going somewhere for radio business or heading to his farm. 

            He saw me and asked if I had some time to talk. He first asked me if I had a job lined up after graduation. I said no and I was a little concerned because I was graduating in March and getting married in May. He laughed and told me he’d offer me a job because he liked my work ethic and saw potential in me BUT he really didn’t have anything available at that time. I said I appreciated the offer and maybe we could keep in touch and something might turn up sometime in the future. I had no idea that “future” would be nearly 16 years later.

            We started talking about farm magazines, newspapers, etc. EJ was keenly interested in these and admitted he knew more about electronic communication than printed communication but he wanted to learn. Then he picked up copies of a couple already-existing Ohio farm publications, looked at me and (I still remember the words!) “Don’t you think we can do better than these?”

            I said “Yes, because I believe we need a state farm publication that better reflects all of Ohio agriculture and not just the biggest operations.” I remembered learning in my classes that Ohio at that time had one of the largest sectors of small to medium size farms of any state. The majority of these were operated by part-time farmers, who worked off the farm. At the same time, Ohio also had one of the most diverse sectors of agriculture, from large grain/livestock/poultry farms to truck farm produce and orchard operations of all sizes: big, medium and small.

            “We could use a publication which covers all of Ohio’s multi-faceted agriculture and which addresses the needs of all of Ohio’s agriculture. You might want to think about that, EJ,” I said.

            He smiled and said he already had been giving it a great deal of thought so we proceeded to use the next half hour tossing ideas back and forth about what we’d like to see in a publication like that, what we didn’t want to see, the potential for such a publication, etc. It wasn’t a formal discussion, just two individuals who loved Ohio agriculture talking about a subject in which they both had a keen interest. 

            Well, I graduated and went into the world to make a career in agricultural communications and EJ kept growing the ABN. Whenever our paths crossed, we would invariably spend a few moments talking about the idea of a new farm publication dedicated entirely to Ohio’s diverse agriculture. 

            Over the next nearly two decades, I worked (and learned!) my way through jobs in agricultural public relations, weekly farm newspaper publication and then nearly a decade in state farm magazine publication, both here in Ohio and in the Southeast states. In the early 90s, I was Senior Editorial Director for 8 state farm publications in the SE but I was ready to move back to Ohio and get a publication started. 

By this time, EJ’s son, Bart, had become much more involved in the operations of the ABN so the three of us met at the former Monihan’s restaurant near Ostrander for a working luncheon to specifically talk about starting a new Ohio farm publication. We agreed the time and the economy was right. The opportunity was open due to consolidation of a couple national farm publishing companies, which had left Ohio without a fully vested state farm magazine, plus the ABN was financially able to afford to get such a publication up and running.

            Most folks who read the OCJ today will never know the tough times we had getting the magazine published. First, there was the logistics and economics of putting together a staff, finding a company which could print what we wanted and most importantly, getting the circulation base and advertising to pay for the publication. Many sleepless nights and a whole lot of “knee mail” prayer occurred in those months because we truly did start the OCJ from ground zero.

            EJ had a remarkable team of employees in the ABN at that time and it was an absolute total company effort getting Ohio’s Country Journal off the ground and going. The first OCJ staff included myself and our production manager, Sharon, but actually, the entire ABN family was the “staff” from Day One. 

            Unexpectedly, one of our earliest “promoters” was the late sausage and restaurant king Bob Evans. Evans was an unabashed promoter of Ohio agriculture, especially in his beloved southeast Ohio home area. When Mr. Evans received his first copy of the OCJ and learned that we would be regularly featuring intensive grazing (which was something he promoted!) he called me late one night (really late, right around midnight!!) and wanted to talk about the publication and intensive grazing. He talked for more than an hour and after that, he became a relentless OCJ promoter. He was so sold on the publication that he would carry stacks of OCJs around with him in his car and hand them out wherever he went. He was also a personal good friend to both EJ and myself. Ed and I both admitted to ourselves more than once that our strong faith in God and our belief in what we were trying to do with the OCJ was sorely tested during those early years, especially when each month’s OCJ financials showed continuing red ink.

            Back then the expected viability of new publications was less than 5 years, on average. It’s even tougher for farm/rural publications! And even if you can made it through the first 5 years, it was still a struggle to survive, because the majority of publications never show a profit in their first five years and normally take 7 to 10 years to turn a profit.

            Through God’s grace, plenty of hard work, sacrifices and perseverance, the OCJ was able to show a profit within the first 3 years of its existence. Although as I said, at times we did question, we had faith the OCJ would succeed because we knew we had a solid product which people appreciated and embraced and quite honestly, it was the readers like the late Mr. Evans who helped sell the magazine for us. 

No question, it also helped having the ABN radio network and the Agri-Country television program as companions with the OCJ. And, when anyone picked up the latest edition of the OCJ, they could expect to see a neighbor, a friend, someone they knew or maybe even their own family farm, featured on the pages each month. 

            With that trio of radio, television and print mediums, Ed Johnson and the ABN were the only privately held farm communications media at that time which had all three mediums under one roof. It was a powerful and impressive company that EJ and his family put together. 

            One thing never wavered, whether it was during those early years or over the years since then: Ohio’s Country Journal is all about Ohio agriculture’s diversity and importance to the state’s economy and most especially, the wonderfully amazing men, women and children who make Ohio’s agriculture and farm communities such wonderful places to live and raise a family. The OCJ always has had and hopefully always will have its roots firmly and solidly implanted in Ohio’s agriculture and rural communities. 

            The OCJ is Buckeye state born-and-bred, birthed out of a chance conversation in an office building in suburban Columbus. I will forever be grateful that even though it took more than 15 years to happen, I was blessed to finally work with Ed Johnson, a man whom I consider both one of the best bosses I’ve ever had but also one of the best friends I’ve ever had in my life as well. 

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