BY ED GEBERT • Times Bulletin Editor
VAN WERT — In 61 years of broadcasting, Orion Samuelson has done it all. Well, if not all, he’s done a great deal. The top agricultural broadcaster in the country, Samuelson has had seemingly countless wonderful experiences.
“There’s not one The Moment, there are many of them,” he shared. “I’d say my visit to Cuba, my first visit to China was absolutely fascinating, my visit to Russia. My background ethnically is from Norway so I enjoyed Norway perhaps the most. But I enjoyed England because of their sense of history. Hong Kong, one of the most exciting cities that never, ever stops moving.”
For Samuelson, his travels are for more than just sightseeing.
He stated, “I have had the opportunity to see those cultures and basically meet with farmers in those countries and see what they have to go through to produce and then see what they have to go through to feed their families. You see the struggle they have to feed their families. The don’t have the technology, and they don’t have the quality of land that we have in this country.”
Samuelson, who will turn 80 years old on March 31, will be speaking at the Niswonger Performing Arts Center on Sunday, Feb. 23 beginning at 3 p.m.
“They’ve asked me to talk basically about what I’ve written in the book, my autobiography of a year ago, You Can’t Dream Big Enough,” he related. “The title is for young people because you really can’t dream big enough — you just can’t imagine what’s out there waiting. Then I wrote it for people of my generation because some say, ‘Now when I run into my grandkids and they ask me what it was like to grow up on a farm, I just tell them to read your book!’ A lot of people grew up similar to the way I did; no electricity, no running water, no telephone, no newspaper. I tell people, ‘I don’t care what your beginning is, you can do whatever you want to.’”
Agriculture has always had Samuelson’s heart. He grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin before going to broadcast school. He worked at a few small radio stations around that state before going to work for WGN in Chicago in 1960. He was the staffer who read the news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to WGN listeners in 1963. He has held the same position with the station for more than half a century, second only to Los Angeles Dodgers announcer Vin Scully for the longest tenure at one broadcasting job.
He and broadcast partner Max Armstrong reach into homes throughout the country with the National Farm Report, Farming American, and Samuelson Sez. Like a traditional farmer, Samuelson is early to bed and early to rise.
"I’m up at a quarter till 3 in the morning,” Samuelson said. “I do 16 broadcasts on WGN radio starting at 4:50 in downtown Chicago, the Tribune Tower. My last live broadcast is at 3:30 and my last on-air report is at 6:30. Then Thursday is the day we do the weekly television show that Max Armstrong and I do. I’ll probably spend about 40-45 days a year on the speaking circuit. So on a normal day, when I’m doing the office stuff, I get home about 4:00, and in bed by 8:00, and up at three in the morning again.”
Over the past 61 years, Samuelson’s job has changed simply because of the changes in agriculture.
“What has changed?” he asked. “Everything! The way that we do it and the content changed considerably because of the fact that in 1972 we became a global agriculture and realized that 95 percent of the world lives outside our borders, and so we had to go into the export market. That changed the weather that we watch, changed the government action that we watch, and it certainly changed the market action.”
He continued, “The thing that they are going to be concerned about is the demand. Then when you get into cases like 2012, with the drought, then you worry about supply because with the drought we certainly weren’t able to come up with the supply that we needed to take care of the global demand. We took care of our domestic demand, but… yeah, there are a lot more complicated factors today than when I was growing up on the farm and when I was starting out in this business 61 years ago.”
The increase in technology available to individual farmers has made some of the information from Samuelson’s reports readily available without the radio. But the appeal of Samuelson is not just the information he delivers.
“I’ve had a lot of farmers tell me that the Internet has no personality, and they like to get the opinion because they know I talk to a lot of people in all circles of agriculture. So that’s why, lucky for me, they still listen!” he chuckled.
They listen, and Samuelson keeps broadcasting. At the age of 79, he shows no signs of slowing down.
He quipped, “Well I’ll turn 80 years old on the 31st of March, and Paul Harvey, who was a good friend of mine, went until he was 90, so I’ll probably keep going, God willing, for a while. My theory has always been that when I’m no longer having fun, then I’ll quit. I’ve been in the broadcast business 61 years and I’m still having fun. I haven’t worked a day since I got into this business!”
You Can’t Dream Big Enough is Samuelson’s memoir, taking readers through stories of his adventures in radio and in agriculture. He claims he could never have imagined how his life would go from being a poor farm boy to a member of the National Radio Hall of Fame and “the American farmer’s best friend.”
He remembered, “Sitting on a milking stool on a cold January morning milking cows on that Wisconsin dairy farm, and I could never have imagined that I would visit all 50 states, 44 countries, meet seven presidents, go to dinner at the White House, and shake hands with Michail Gorbachev and Fidel Castro. You just can’t dream that.”
Tickets to see Orion Samuelson are still available at the Niswonger Performing Arts Center Box Office.