Max Armstrong knew from the time he was 7 years old that he wanted to be on the radio, and is now celebrating 48 years in his career in agricultural broadcasting. For the first couple of years in his career, the man known today as “The Voice of American Agriculture” worked with the Illinois Farm Bureau, then with Orion Samuelson on WGN Radio, and later on the TV shows “U.S. Farm Report” and “This Week in Agribusiness.” He has been a popular voice and face at antique tractor events, farm shows and conferences for almost five decades, is an author, and helped start a popular antique tractor event.
Armstrong is cutting back on his broadcast hours this year and releasing a new book.
IFT: What made you decide to pursue a career in agricultural broadcast news?
ARMSTRONG: I grew up in southern Indiana, near Princeton, on a grain and livestock farm, then went to Purdue University. I always wanted to be on the radio. When I was 7 or 8 years old — that early — I knew. It was the fascination of that voice coming out of a box from St. Louis, Detroit or Chicago. I was so committed to that goal I never let go of it.
IFT: During much of your career, you have been associated with fellow legendary broadcaster, Orion Samuelson. Do you remember the first day you met him?
ARMSTRONG: It was on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade at a media dinner. We dined right in the soybean pit. I introduced myself and said I worked for the Illinois Farm Bureau. “If you ever have an opening, think of me,” I said. Orion said, “It’s nice to meet you. Thank you.” I think it was another 14 months and he had an opening.
IFT: What is this I hear about you possibly retiring?
ARMSTRONG: I wouldn’t exactly call it retirement. I have shifted gears — changing course a bit. I’ve been tied to deadlines for so many years. Now I can spend more time visiting farmers, friends. I was just in Michigan City, Indiana, visiting friends at a radio station there and one in Princeton, and one in Danville, Ill. … I’m slowing down my broadcast schedule which allows me more face-to-face time with people.
IFT: What is a good opening topic for you when chatting with farmers?
ARMSTRONG: It’s often our passion for antique tractors. In all honesty, that has allowed me to meet far more farmers than I would have otherwise. My mom and dad took delivery of a 1953 Farmall Super H the same summer they took delivery of me. I bought it at their auction.
IFT: It’s nearly time for the Half Century of Progress show that brings antique tractor lovers to Rantoul, Illinois, before the Farm Progress show in Decatur. How were you involved in starting and growing what is billed as “The World’s Largest Vintage Working Farm Show”?
ARMSTRONG: In 2003, the 50th anniversary of Farm Progress was held near Henning, Illinois. They wanted to do something special. Mark Randall put the idea out there to have an antique tractor event. Darius Harms, who passed seven years ago, had the contacts of who had machines to bring from across the U.S. for the show.
After that first year, it has been held in Rantoul every year since. We have such an expansive facility with paved runways and over 1,000 acres. … The 11th Half Century of Progress Show is from Aug. 24-27 in Rantoul.
IFT: What is it about antique tractors?
ARMSTRONG: Everybody I have met who has an old tractor has a story. An old John Deere tractor that President Reagan rode was at the Half Century show one year. In the 1960s, some scenes for the movie “In the Heat of the Night” were shot in Sparta, Illinois, at an IH dealership. A tractor from that movie was here two years ago.
IFT: You have earned many honors and recognition over the years including NAFB Farm Broadcaster of the Year back in 2001. Among these awards, does something stand out?
ARMSTRONG: Plaques and trophies are wonderful. You appreciate them. I’ve been a farm broadcaster for 48 years and on the radio for 53 years starting in high school, but two months ago, a young man in central Indiana made me the subject of his class project. He stood there and imitated me. At this stage in my career, something like that young man did really means something. His granddad suggested it, his mom and dad helped and he did it. It made me very proud and humbled.
IFT: Since your first book “Stories from the Heartland” published in 2015 featuring inspiring and often funny stories from your travels across the Midwest and around the world was very popular, can we expect more?
ARMSTRONG: There’s a new book coming out — “More Stories from the Heartland.” I will be doing an audio version too when I get time too.
IFT: Where do you find your stories?
ARMSTRONG: I talk to people on my travels, I’ve done a lot of posts on social media and some other things. Not all my stories are about rural life, but most of them are.
IFT: Do you have any career advice for youths just starting out?
ARMSTRONG: Get on the radar screen of a mentor. They may give you a lift along the way. They may criticize you, make you laugh, or make you angry and be by your side. Darius Harms was one of those people to me. He had nothing to do with broadcasting. But he knew people. He was into social media before there was social media. He always had a phone in one hand.
In a LinkedIn post recently, I asked “Is it possible to be mentored at age 70?” It is. Four guys, senior to me, from Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Nebraska, mentor me. One guy writes notes and mails them, another will text me stories almost daily and another will comment on a broadcast. The other gentleman whispered to me about my jacket lining hanging out at an event. They lead me down a variety of paths and have been helpful to me.
IFT: What makes a good mentor?
ARMSTRONG: They can see someone setting the world on fire and can uplift and encourage them.
Six weeks ago I met a 67-year-old Minnesota farmer with 6,000 acres and nobody to succeed him. A young man about 30 was with him. He saw this young man at FFA and on sports teams in the community. He had a fire in his belly for farming and was always showing up early. The older farmer saw this and handpicked him. I told the young guy, “You won the lottery.” He said, “Yes sir.”