At their first meeting, Don Hoover recalled, Bill Burgess was standing outside in miserable winter weather, engaging attendees of an agriculture event.
With a stream of water running between his boots, Burgess asked probing questions, handed out copies of Lancaster Farming and solicited subscriptions.
Hoover, a partner at ag equipment dealer Binkley & Hurst, said that was just a taste of the commitment the publisher demonstrated over the next two decades.
"He is going to be missed big-time," Hoover said.
After 21 years as leader of Lancaster Farming and LNP Media Group’s local weekly papers, Burgess retired Aug. 2.
“I’m really thankful for all that we were able to accomplish,” said the 71-year-old Downingtown resident, who is married and has two adult children and a grandchild.
Burgess attributed successes to team efforts involving the Steinman family that owns the publications, and editors, staffers, state officials, local farmers and business owners.
“It’s been tremendous,” he said.
But unless they’re part of the agricultural industry, local residents may not know that the modestly named Lancaster Farming is a massive publication sometimes referred to as the “Farmer’s bible” that reaches far beyond the borders of the county.
Steve Seeber, the weekly paper’s editor, said that while Pennsylvania is the core of Lancaster Farming's coverage area, its circulation stretches from Maine to Virginia.
Company records show the paper’s net paid circulation was over 48,000 in 2002 and close to 57,000 now, despite the well-documented struggles of many print publications in recent years.
Agriculture and Lancaster Farming changed a lot over the last two decades, Burgess said, and he’s optimistic about their future.
Dairy has long been a key part of the industry, he said, and despite the serious challenges it has long faced, it will “most definitely” remain a force a decade from now.
“It’s going to have a different format that I really can’t perceive right now,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult, but these farmers are very resilient and this community is very resilient.”
Overseeing the publications after his retirement will be Caroline Muraro, president of LNP Media Group, and Robert M. Krasne, CEO of its parent company, Steinman Communications.
Krasne said he does not anticipate any changes to the appearance of Lancaster Farming.
“His leadership and passion for Lancaster Farming will be missed,” Krasne said of Burgess, noting that he “created an essential weekly read for farmers” and others involved with agriculture and “helped businesses recognize that Lancaster Farming and the innovative LancasterFarmingLocator.com provide the best way to sell equipment and other ag-related products to active consumers.”
Will be missed
“People know what’s happening in agriculture in Pennsylvania because of Lancaster Farming,” said state agriculture Secretary Russell Redding. “There’s not another state with that reach around the country.”
Lisa Graybeal, who helps run her family’s large dairy operation in Fulton Township and is a board member of the Lancaster County Agriculture Council, said Burgess “embodies the spirit of this industry” and shares it with the paper’s tens of thousands of loyal readers.
“There may be a successor to Bill, but he will never be replaced,” she said.
Larry Weaver used to be assistant director of the Pennsylvania Farm Show complex and started the Friends of the Pennsylvania Farm Show Foundation Inc., which Burgess serves as a board member.
He and others stressed how important Burgess believed organizations like 4-H and FFA were to the future of farming, and how the paper’s coverage reflected that.
“He wanted to know what was good for the farm community out there and how he could help improve things,” Weaver said.
Growing Lancaster Farming and keeping it fresh was something Burgess put a lot of effort into.
Robert Campbell helped start the paper in 1955, and Burgess succeeded him in 1998.
He had spent more than three decades in the newspaper business, in advertising with the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, then as publisher of a division of Journal Register Company in Wayne and a division of Media News Group of Hanover.
By his own admission Burgess didn’t have much background in agriculture, but quickly got up to speed by spending a lot of time with people in the industry — asking questions and paying close attention.
“He was really involved and he really knew the business,” said Chuck Hoober, a partner at ag equipment dealer Hoober Inc. “You could tell he enjoyed his job.”
Hoover’s description was similar. Burgess “took the importance of relationships very much to heart,” he said, was not afraid to state his opinion — which “usually had significant merit” — and helped launch awareness of initiatives like the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance.
While the weekly local papers were smaller, its staffers said Burgess was a strong and effective leader there too.
“Keeps pushing us forward all the time,” was the description from Andy Fasnacht, editor of the Ephrata and Lititz papers. “And he really truly cared about us and our families.”
During his tenure, Seeber said, Burgess promoted him from reporter to editor of the Lititz paper, and then last year to editor of Lancaster Farming, displaying a balance of trust and toughness throughout.
He and Fasnacht noted that in addition to his leadership, Burgess was noted for gestures like making omelets and barbecue for staff.
“He brings a jumbo shrimp tray to the company Christmas party every year, and I know that we’re all going to miss that,” Seeber said.