He was the reserved-looking man sitting on the front row at the meeting or standing in the field chatting with the farmer, his left hand dancing the pen steadily across the notepad, recording the facts, the quotes and observations he used to account decades of agriculture.
You might not have recognized him in person, but you’d likely know his name. John Leidner was easy to talk to, easy to smile (liked to help others smile, too) and easy to work with. He was a listener. Not a man to dominate a conversation, but he had a wry sense of humor. Savvy. He liked people and getting to know them. He was a friend, a devoted family man, active church member, a sturdy colleague and one of the region’s top agricultural journalists.
He passed away June 18 after a short illness. He was 67.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appears in the Sunbelt Ag Expo 2019 Program Guide. The Sunbelt Expo will take place Oct. 15-17 in Moultrie, Ga.)
“Up until this past June, there has been one constant presence at the Sunbelt Ag Expo, and that was John Leidner,” said Chip Blalock, executive director of the Sunbelt Ag Expo.
Leidner wrote in all 41 Sunbelt Expo programs through to 2018. In 2007, he was the editor of “The Sunbelt Agricultural Exposition, A Thirty-Year Perspective,” using his unique historical viewpoint of the Expo and region’s agricultural history.
“John was well respected throughout the farming community and had a way of describing the latest in ag technology in a way that made it understandable. John was a trusted source of information farmers relied on to make management decisions,” Blalock said.
Over the last decade, Leidner annually clocked thousands of miles of driving to visit and write profiles of each of the state winners of Swisher Sweets / Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year Award.
“John was opposed to flying, so he would travel by his trusty Chevy pickup truck to all 10 states to do personal interviews and write the stories,” Blalock said. “John always painted a very clear picture with his writing to not only describe the farmer’s operation but to make you feel like you were on the tour with him. These stories are released in July ahead of the judging tour and gave the judges great perspective on what they would see on their visits.”
Leidner was Progressive Farmer’s southeast editor for 30 years, covering like no one else the region’s diverse agricultural landscape. Along with his work with the Expo, life after Progressive Farmer included writing for other farming publications, such as Southeastern Peanut Farmer and Southeast Farm Press.
“He was very dedicated to covering ag news and sharing it with farmers. I think he especially liked attending field days and visiting with researchers about their ongoing peanut research or visiting with farmers. His articles definitely helped to keep the farmer updated on research and how to apply new practices on their farm,” said Joy Crosby, editor of Southeastern Peanut Farmer.
“I was fortunate to be able to travel with him across the Southeast and learn from him as I watched him interview farmers. He was a great travel buddy and always up for the next adventure and my article ideas. He will definitely be missed in the ag community, peanut industry and especially by me,” Crosby said.
Leidner was born in McAllen, Texas, where he grew up on a family farm, working manual labor and learning how to fix things and solve problems. He attended Mission High and later graduated Texas A&M University. In 1974, he married Mary Brown in College Station. They lived for decades in Tifton, Ga., where she worked for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the agency's first female agronomist, and was district conservationist for surrounding counties there.
Mrs. Mary passed away four years ago. John was by her side. They were married 41 years. They have three children: a daughter, Laura, and son Mark is married to Laura Kate, and son Andrew is married to Courtney. They all live in Atlanta.
The Leidners were sort of hands-off but directly supportive of their children, Mark said, preferring to lead by example, giving their children the tools to solve their own problems, and, most importantly, cultivate a healthy imagination, providing a safe place with good books to read, which was center in their home.
“As kids, we said our prayers together. He was big on us knowing the difference between right and wrong and having a good conscious. That was very important to them both, and that was really his only rule. That’s where he put all his chips,” said Mark, 38, who is an English professor at Georgia State Perimeter College.
Everyone who knew John, knew he loved football. “And in high school, when I stopped playing football, he was a little disappointed, but I played soccer and he went to every single soccer game, always taking us (the children) to every event we participated in and being there. At the time, I didn’t understand what that really meant. Now I’m older, I understand it much more,” Mark said. “They were devoted.”
Leidner was very sick when he was in the hospital. Even then, he was listening. Somebody would say something, maybe a nurse speaking about him, “He’d wake up, zing them with quick one-liner, make them laugh, and he’d go back to sleep.”
Mark and Andrew, along with their wives, are both expecting sons. Due date for both babies is later in September. The first grandchildren for John and Mary.
A Salad Man
Dr. Bob Kemerait is the University of Georgia Extension plant pathologist. Shortly after moving to Tifton almost 20 years ago, Kemerait got to know Leidner through the Knights of Columbus at their Catholic church.
“From the first, I really liked John and greatly appreciated his enthusiasm and his absolute willingness to help no matter the task. We both took turns providing coffee and doughnuts after Mass on Sundays,” Kemerait said, adding they both worked together to support the church’s annual Pig Pickin’, too. Kemerait was the pig cooker; Leidner the salad man.
“Once he came up to me and said, ‘Bob, I really need to interview you.’ That’s when I came to know John Leidner was a well-respected journalist. At meetings, I would always find him on the very front row, old-time journalism, taking meticulous handwritten notes. He was a class act, always thanking me for the time I gave him. I owed him the greater gratitude. I miss him, especially when he would say, ‘Bob, let’s finish making the salad and roasting the pig, then we can sit down and do an interview,” Kemerait said.