A spur of the moment decision sparked the revival of what is now one of England’s most respected farming magazines.
South East Farmer, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, would probably not have made it past 1994 without the intervention of Clive Rabson, who only recently stepped down as publisher after guiding the magazine’s growth and development for more than a quarter of a century.
Back in 1994, at the heart of the recession, Clive had been invited to what he thought was a routine sales meeting at the headquarters of the Chelmsford publisher that then owned South East Farmer.
“After the meeting I was told we would all be made redundant,” he recalled. “I’m still not quite sure why they held that meeting, but I replied with ‘How much do you want for the magazines?’ and the owners said: ‘We were hoping you would ask that’.”
Clive bought South East Farmer, then struggling for revenue, and its sister publication South East Business, arranged to remain in the existing premises at Evegate Barn, Smeeth, kept the team together and began the job of transforming the fortunes of the publications under the Evegate Publishing banner.
South East Farmer had been launched in 1982 by Harvest Publications, which had bought its predecessor, Farmscope, from the Kent Messenger’s Special Publications Unit. Farmscope editor Ray Vale stayed on as the first editor in 1982. Around five years later, Apple Communications, the company Clive was working for at the time, bought the magazine.
When Apple Communications began a new venture which later became the successful travel company Holiday Extras, the directors brought in a public relations business, Plus Communications, to manage the editorial side of South East Farmer. Two years later, in 1993, the magazines were sold to ACG in Chelmsford, but with the recession biting hard, the writing was on the wall – until Clive bought the titles a year later.
“Those were tough times for magazines, and while focussing on South East Business I was tempted to close down South East Farmer,” Clive admitted. “But I stuck with it, and then in 1996 I advertised for a new advertising executive with experience.
“I received four or five inquiries, including a letter from a guy in Sittingbourne. A smart looking fellow turned up, and after three interviews I gave him the job. It was a very good move.”
That new advertising salesman was Jamie McGrorty, now the magazine’s publisher and the man credited by Clive as “the driving force behind South East Farmer, back then and to this day.”
Jamie, who had begun his career at Adscene at the age of 16, managed to get property advertisements back in the magazine, sharpened its farming focus, cleaned up the mailing lists and, most importantly, began attending farming shows and events around the South East to raise the magazine’s profile. Revenues climbed steadily as a result.
“We worked hard to establish the magazine as a reliable source of information and quality advertising for farmers across the region, as well as ensuring the content was relevant and interesting,” Jamie explained.
Editor John Harvey, who was at the helm from 2002 to 2018, played a huge part in ensuring the success of the magazine, while farmer Peter Tipples, who contributed an at-times acerbic and hard-hitting column from 1987 until shortly before his death in 2011, was certainly its best-loved writer.
“Peter was never afraid to put his head above the parapet and also kept the reader up to date with the month’s weather and the antics of his five great danes,” commented Clive. “He was a true gentleman of the farming world.”
Evegate Publishing published a book of Peter’s South East Farmer contributions in 2009, donating the profits from a 9,000 print run to a number of Peter’s favourite charities. The author himself signed hundreds of copies during an appearance at that year’s Weald of Kent Ploughing Match.
In 2001 Clive and Jamie launched Farm Machinery, giving farmers another incentive to rip open the monthly mailing to check out the latest bargains. Rival publication Farm Advertiser closed a year later, further strengthening the appeal of the new magazine, which, then as now, complements South East Farmer.
That same year, just five years after joining, Jamie became a director of Evegate Publishing – but the story could have been different.
“In 1997 at the age of 18 I had a string of flashy but old and unreliable cars, and I wasn’t great at getting to work on time,” Jamie admitted. “One Monday morning after I had been out partying all weekend I phoned in and told Clive I wouldn’t be in that day.
“That wasn’t a good move as I’d already missed several days because of car breakdowns, and when I got in the next day Clive gave me a written warning about my punctuality and admin skills. I felt very hard done by and went home and complained bitterly – but the family all agreed with Clive! I bought myself a nice reliable little Peugeot 1.4 and made sure I got to work on time in future.”
Explaining his thinking behind attending farming shows and ploughing matches to raise awareness of the magazine, something Jamie and the team still do every summer, he explained: “Farming is life for our readers. It’s not like a business magazine, which just reflects the ‘nine to five’ part of its readers’ lives. Farming is a way of life like no other – and we have tried to make South East Farmer a welcome part of the whole farming community.”
Clive added: “South East Farmer changed me. I came to love farming, the people involved in it and the events that support it. I couldn’t get to the Heathfield Show this year and it saddened me to miss such a great event.”
South East Farmer’s original Kent and East Sussex patch had been expanded to include West Sussex and Surrey following Jamie’s arrival, and in 2006 it widened again, taking in Hampshire, Oxfordshire, Essex, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire.
In 2017, with South East Farmer increasingly writing about the number of farmers who were diversifying into viticulture, the duo decided to launch a specialist magazine to serve that growing market, and in January 2018 Vineyard was launched. The magazine quickly proved a success and in 2021 spawned The Vineyard and Winery Show, which is being held again this year on 23 November at the Kent Event Centre.
It was while at the Heathfield Show in 2019 that Clive decided the time was right to retire and the magazines were put up for sale. After receiving considerable interest, the directors decided that Kelsey Media was the best fit, a decision that has proved to be a good one, given the continued growth of South East Farmer, Farm Machinery and Vineyard under the new ownership.
The deal was completed on 2 Jan 2020, with Jamie staying on as publisher and continuing to head up the sales team. Clive’s retirement, after he had provided three months of handover support, unfortunately coincided with the pandemic. “I thought to myself: ‘Right, where shall I go first?’ and Boris came on the TV and said ‘nowhere’,” he recalled.
Looking back on the part he played in the 40-year history of South East Farmer, Clive added: “The magazine has grown far beyond my initial dreams, with the invaluable support of the right editors and a superb team. I never thought it would carve out such an important role in the world of agriculture and horticulture and to see it grow in this way has been a source of joy and pride. I know that under the current leadership that growth will continue.”