( The Packer )

The following article, from The History of The Packer in "A Century of Produce," was published in 1993.

As The Packer prepares to publish our 125th-anniversary edition later this year, we are posting some of the writing from previous anniversary publications.

Here, then managing editor Gordon Billingsley talks about the origin of agricultural communications - and the birth of The Packer.

Agriculture: the seed of early communication

By Gordon Billingsley

Eve is said to have written the first chapter, when she handed Adam an apple.

Cave dwellers in Northern Italy took a stab at it in their wall drawings.

And preserved bits of the world’s first written language, Sumerian, prominently featured agriculture and such Middle Eastern produce as dates and figs about 10,000 years ago, historians say.

Agriculture was the seed of civilization. It should be no surprise that agriculture was a principal force in early communication.

It began with oral histories that passed along the secrets of seeds -- and thus survival. The early cave dwellers devised a more permanent record of their daily activities with drawings on the walls of their homes depicting hoeing and plowing. 

Writing samples found in what was ancient Sumeria show that writing also offered the chance to capture and coordinate information about the supplies and distribution of food within growing cities and civilizations. Tallies and inventories of supplies are common records.

The first known agriculture textbook, historians believe, was written about 2,100 years ago by a Roman expert named Marcus Cato. It was, however, the invention of the movable type press by Johann Gutenberg in the mid-1400s that gave rise to widespread records of agricultural activity, including the first widely printed account of Eve’s brush with produce history in Gutenberg’s famous printed Bible.

European manuals instructing lords of manors on how to manage their estates were common between 1500 and 1800. One of the first English language attempts was an epic-length poem by Londoner Thomas Tusser called Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandrie, in which he advised growers to be near their markets and to keep their corn dry.

The first recorded agriculture report to Europe from the New World was written by Christopher Columbus. It included notice of new vegetable crops like corn (maize) and of New World versions of vegetables like yams.

“The land is very fertile, and is cultivated with yams, kidney beans and another grain like panic called by them mahiz of very excellent flavor cooked or roasted....”

More than 100 years later, early American settlers wrote of their own agricultural efforts. William Bradford’s journal of 1621 -- complete with quaint spellings -- offers an account of early North American corn plantings often cited during the U.S. holiday of Thanksgiving.

“... Squanto stood them in good stead, showing them both the maner how to set it, and after how to dress & tend it. Also he tould them, excepte they gott fish & set with it (in these old grounds) it would come to nothing.”

But the godfathers of agriculture information and reporting in the colonies were the fathers of the nation, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The two experimented with crops and equipment and wrote extensively in diaries and letters, often exchanging information.

Jefferson once wrote to Washington describing a crop rotation that included wheat, corn, potatoes, peas, rye or wheat, clover and buckwheat.

Their activities gave rise to the notion that cultivation of the soil was a scientific endeavor and their writings seeded the creation of agriculture societies like the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture. These societies saw the need for published information about and for growers of agricultural products.

By 1819, the first farm magazine, which also was an agribusiness marketing journal, American Farmer, began publishing to help farmers develop their skills “in the management of their resources.” It also promised to contain a “faithful account of the actual prices of all those principal articles, which the people of the country generally have to buy, or to sell, in the Baltimore market.”

As a journal for marketing as well as husbandry, American Farmer pointed the way for many successful publications that followed. The longest-running success belongs to Prairie Farmer magazine in Illinois. It began publishing in 1847 and is the oldest still-published farm magazine in the United States.

But it really was the latter part of the century in which agriculture and agribusiness publishing and information took hold.

At that time the land grant universities, created by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, developed agricultural experiment stations under federal legislation. This gave rise to vast amounts of agricultural marketing and husbandry information.

By 1897, for instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture printed more than 6 million copies of 424 publications and another one-half million copies of its Yearbook of Agriculture. Private publishers jumped into the game as well. The 1880s saw more than 150 agriculture journals roll off the presses.

Roughly two-thirds of the publications were general farm magazines, but the other third were specialized publications featuring marketing or cultural information on single or narrower groups of commodities.

Over the 20 years from 1880 to 1900, farm publications grew to more than 350, and they increasingly specialized, with more than one-half reporting on small parts of the American agriculture and agribusiness scene. The most popular topics were crops, horticulture, poultry and dairy.

It was in this environment of increasing specialization of agriculture and agribusiness, and a growing awareness that agriculture needed to reach into city markets and distribution systems -- and needed to develop efficient marketing systems -- that a specialized trade newspaper called The Packer was founded Feb. 16, 1893.