THOMPSONVILLE, Ill. — Tom Saxe is known by almost every beef producer around these parts. And he has been retired for nearly two decades.
He spent more than 30 years with University of Illinois Extension and is still active in beef education in southern Illinois. His Southern accent, folksy style and straight talk is familiar to thousands of livestock producers and others in Illinois agriculture.
His family moved to a small farm near this Franklin County, Illinois, community from nearby Eldorado in 1949, when Saxe was 7 years old. He has inhabited a small farm here ever since.
“I grew up right down the road here,” he said. “My first seven years, we lived in five different places. They found this little 43-acre place and bought that.”
The home had no electricity or indoor plumbing. He now lives in a modern home that is a far cry from the old family place. The farm has expanded some, now encompassing 150 acres.
“All our little farm ever was is an FFA project,” he said.
As he approaches his 80th year, Saxe is slowing down some. He sold about half his 40-cow Angus-Simmental herd this year.
In the 1960s he was pursuing an advanced agriculture degree at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
He joked that he was an unsuccessful draft dodger.
“I’m as patriotic or more so than the next guy, but ... I wasn’t getting in a hurry to get that degree,” he said. “My draft board said they wouldn’t draft me until I got the degree. But they did. Two weeks before, and I got my draft notice.”
He got drafted on the same day he was offered a job with Extension in LaSalle County. Saxe spent nearly two years in the Army, a good chunk of it in Vietnam. He earned a Purple Heart after being hit with shrapnel from a mortar round.
He was a communications operator who carried a 25-pound radio. It was a dangerous job.
“If you get into a firefight, the first thing they want to take out is the radio, to mess up communications,” he said. “We walked into an ambush one day.”
In another clash, his best friend, also a radio operator, took a sniper’s bullet in the neck and died instantly.
“That jammed our whole communications system up for a couple of hours before we got to him and got his hand off that set,” he recalled.
The assistant Extension educator’s position in LaSalle County was still available when he got out of the Army.
“I was up there five years,” he said. “I made some good friends there.”
He responded to an opportunity to head back to southern Illinois when he was offered a position in Pope and Hardin counties.
“I had an animal industry ‘special interest’ in my background,” he said. “They were establishing these area livestock advisors. They called them animal system educators.”
During his time with the U of I and beyond, Saxe remains involved in organizations such as the Illinois Beef Association and Southern Illinois Beef Association. He helped launch the so-called Cowboy Club, which brings producers together occasionally to hear new ideas.
He has seen new measures in pasture management, as cattlemen have embraced intensive rotational grazing.
While there have been many other changes in the beef industry since Saxe began his career, the one that concerns him the most originated from the consumer end. The result is a struggle by the industry to get its message to the public.
“The leaders in the industry really promote trying to get people’s attention about the fact that we grow this marvelously nutritious product and we take care of it the best we can,” he said. “At the same time, we have these national organizations pumping tremendous amounts of money into countering those efforts. In fact, they think maybe the cow ought to be able to go to the poll and vote. It’s disgusting. It’s a mind-set.”
The Veterinary Feed Directive, which regulates antibiotics in livestock feed, is another big change. Saxe sees it as more overreach by the government.
“That’s all political. It’s a result of these consumer groups putting pressure somewhere,” he said. “It makes things a little uncomfortable, a little aggravating to deal with. If it’s done to the letter of the law, that will put some people out of business.”