Orion Samuelson

Growing up on a Wisconsin dairy farm in the 1940s, Orion Samuelson assumed he would end up taking over the operation from his parents. However, life had other plans for him.

When Samuelson was unable to take over the farm due to a health issue, he knew he wanted to stay involved in agriculture in some capacity and decided to turn to broadcasting. The rest, as they say, is history.

Samuelson has become one of the most recognizable voices and faces of agriculture during his time as a farm broadcaster, working with WGN Radio since the 1960s and now helping host This Week in Agribusiness with Max Armstrong.

He has covered many national issues and was on the air at WGN Radio when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.

IFT: What drew you to radio and how did you get your start?

SAMUELSON: I would have taken over the dairy farm when I reached the proper age, but when I came out of eighth grade at the one-room country school I attended, I developed a leg disease known as Leggs Perthes and I couldn’t walk for two years. The doctor said, ‘You aren’t going to be able to do the heavy work of farming, so you better start thinking about something else.’

I was lucky enough to have an FFA advisor who watched me when he'd come out to bring classes to my farm home. I'd be listening to radio, and one day I said, ‘Do you think I’d be able to do that?’ and he said ‘We’ll get you into FFA public speaking and we’ll find out.’

As a result, I got into broadcasting in Sparta, Wisconsin, at WKLJ radio. I was a polka disc jockey and worked there for about two years … and then in 1956, the manager of the station in Green Bay was covering agriculture on TV and remembered I had grown up on a farm, so I went to work at WBAY in 1956.

I put in four years, and then in 1960, the farm director for WGN Radio in Chicago resigned and the general manager of the station came to Green Bay and said ‘We’d like to hire you.’ That was going to put me in pretty tall corn because I’m just a country boy. Fifty-nine years later I’m still there.

IFT: Were there any other career paths you considered?

SAMUELSON: No, I didn’t really think of any other career. I was considered at one time to be Secretary of Agriculture when Ronald Reagan was president, but my good friend John Block, hog farmer from Illinois, became the secretary and I’m glad he did. He did a great job.

When I gave Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz a call and asked what I should do, he said ‘Well, if you become secretary of agriculture, half the people in the country will like you and the other half will hate you. I think you can do a better job for agriculture on WGN radio in Chicago.’ That was good advice because I’ve been there ever since.

IFT: Throughout your career at WGN, what did you enjoy covering the most? Do any events stick out to you?

SAMUELSON: How many pages do you have? Sitting on a milking stool in a cold barn in January in Wisconsin, I never could have dreamed I’d go to 44 countries, I’d meet and interview nine presidents and I would meet and shake hands with Mikhail Gorbachev and Fidel Castro.

But the best part of the job, really, is the farmers and ranchers I’ve talked to every day. That’s the highlight, really, the people I’ve met in this career of agriculture and the opportunity to talk on both radio and television and tell their stories.

When I first arrived in Chicago, I realized in about a week that, whoa, I have a huge audience in the city. That surprised me. City folks listen because they wanted to learn about agriculture. I realized with some of the questions I’m getting I better start using language that city folks will understand and help them understand why the technology is so important.

I had an hour at noon to go on the air to talk about what was happening and why it’s happening. This is why farmers are concerned about trade with China and why it’s important to all of us.

But you know, I'm still getting some of the calls that are as misguided now as they were 20 years ago. So I begin to wonder, are we really making progress in developing more understanding?

IFT: Is there a better way, such as person-to-person contact, to improve that communication?

SAMUELSON: We can always improve it. In Illinois, years ago, the Illinois Farm Bureau had a farm-city visit where the city family would go to the farm for a weekend, live in the house and sit with the family at the dinner table and all that. It was very successful. I still hear today from city families who say they learned more from that weekend on a farm than anything else.

With the advent of more farm magazines and papers, with the advent of farm TV and with the growth of farm radio, I guess we’ve got the tools. Now we have to develop how to use those tools to communicate better.

Anytime we can bring people together at a county fair or a state fair, and let them actually talk to farm people and farm kids to see what they're doing, I think that's probably the best way.

IFT: You were in Washington, D.C., recently to speak with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. What is the sense you got from him about the current state of things in agriculture right now?

SAMUELSON: He is one of the more positive people involved in agriculture and I’m glad for that, because if you just talk about the negative things all the time, things get more negative, it seems to me.

I enjoy his spirit and his enthusiasm. He is probably the most traveled Secretary of Agriculture I’ve known in my years. As he said in our interview, he likes to travel to meetings and events not to talk, but to listen.

I like the fact he always has to use a positive approach. He was criticized pretty strongly at the World Dairy Expo in Madison in October when he said ‘You know, you’re going to have to get bigger, because it’s too challenging with the costs of inputs and equipment today for a small operation to work.’

He really got hit hard by media and dairy farmers on that one, but you know what? He’s right. Maybe not to the degree that some people want to see, but our farm disappeared in 1964. Today, the people who bought it are still on it and instead of milking 30 cows, they are milking 150 cows.

You can say all the bad things you want to about that, but it's reality. And I think we have to deal in reality when we talk about things.

IFT: There are a lot of farmers who are disappointed in commodity prices, especially grain farmers, and they are discouraged about farming moving forward. We’ve seen tough stretches before. Do you feel there is a light at the end of the tunnel?

SAMUELSON: I certainly do, because I vividly remember the 1980s when almost every evening on CBS or ABC News, we would see another farm auction in Iowa, Nebraska and Ohio.

I remember in those times, country banks were going out of business, they would no longer be able to work with farmers. Farm Credit Association was challenged, it was going out of business according to some of the stories I covered in the ’80s.

We came out of it. But unfortunately, when you deal with weather, when you deal with politics, when you deal with the challenges of trade and transportation, you're going to have the downs, but I say, concentrate on the ups, because that's what's going to get you through it all.

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