At just 8 years old, Max Armstrong remembers stowing away in the closet, down on the farm in Owensville, Ind. He’d hole up there to play “radio,” sitting with the Evansville Courier and reading copy, playing to the television cameras.
In those days, he listened to the big stations at night, broadcasting from St. Louis, Detroit and Chicago, and dreamed of someday being on the radio in Chicago.
Fast-forward 20 years and Max did just that and more, originating broadcasts from more than 30 countries and every state in the U.S. for WGN, “This Week in Agribusiness” and Farm Progress. His is the voice that boomed from radio transmitters atop the tallest towers in Chicago, sharing the story of agriculture far beyond the farm, yet never forgetting where he came from.
It’s a quality that’s impossible not to notice, and it’s part of why Prairie Farmer has named Max Armstrong an Honorary Master Farmer in 2018.
“He’s so darn accessible and likeable and relatable that people feel like they’ve had a friend for life in Max Armstrong,” says Tom Brand, executive director for the National Association of Farm Broadcasting. Brand squarely pegs that trait to Max’s Indiana farm kid roots. “Max has never forgotten where he came from.”
Born just two blocks from an International Harvester dealership in Princeton, Ind., Max grew up in a warm and loving farm community, the son of farmers James and Stella Fay Armstrong. His early radio days put him on the air across the river in Mount Carmel, Ill., and following a degree from Purdue University, he went to work broadcasting for Illinois Farm Bureau. Soon, he caught the eye — and ear — of Orion Samuelson at WGN. Orion called him up to the big leagues, and by age 24, Max was headed for Chicago.
So began one of the best-known partnerships in all of ag history, as “Max and Orion” became farmhouse names, known for their integrity, knowledge and Midwestern wit. For 42 years they’ve partnered, first on WGN Radio, and then on the syndicated TV show “U.S. Farm Report.” In 2005, they created the syndicated TV show “This Week in Agribusiness.”
Their indelible partnership works because they respect each other’s knowledge and talent. “It’s been a great relationship that goes beyond friendship,” Orion says.
FLASHBACK: In 1971 at age 18, Max Armstrong was manning the microphone in the studio of WVMC, just across the river in Mount Carmel, Ill.
Eight years ago, Max joined the Farm Progress team, originating broadcasts on more than 140 radio stations while continuing “This Week in Agribusiness” with Orion. “It got to where the concrete and steel wasn’t where I wanted to be,” he explains. “These last eight years, I’ve been on more farms than ever in my career.”
Four years ago, Max and his wife, Linda, (whom he met on a blind date during his IFB days) moved to North Carolina to be near their daughter Kristi, a neonatal intensive care nurse, and her young family. For Max, that means a lot of airplane time back to the Midwest, but the chance to live near his two granddaughters is worth it. His daughter Lisa is pursuing an advanced degree in motion graphics in California.
Max has volunteered with local fire departments and served as a fire commissioner in suburban Chicago for 22 years. In 2017, he was elected president of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting. Asked if he’s always been a leader, Max laughs.
“I wouldn’t say that! Witness the fact that I was a member of NAFB for 40 years before I was president. I’m the guy in the trenches gutting it out.”
Still, his colleagues — and listeners — say he has an uncanny ability to make people feel valued and cared for. A handwritten note, a timely call, a tractor remembered — those are the calling cards he’s known for.
And like most humble agriculturists, Max still doesn’t feel like it’s enough.
“I often think I haven’t done much with my life,” he says. “It happens every year when I look at the Master Farmers and see what they’ve done with their lives — what they’ve built and the difference they’ve made.
“But in my own way, I’ve had the opportunity to touch a lot of lives and hopefully made a difference in their lives.”
WORKING HARD: “Whatever success I’ve had is because I work a lot,” Max Armstrong says, shown here working hard at the Farm Progress Show. “Growing up on a farm like so many people, the work ethic has been instilled in us — maybe to a fault!”
What does Max Armstrong mean on your farm?
“If you hear Max, you pay attention. He is a trustworthy, valuable and historic part of Illinois and U.S. agriculture.” Doug Martin, Mount Pulaski, Ill.
“A legend in the field of agricultural broadcasting. There’s no doubt about it, when you hear that voice, you know it’s Max.” Christy Couch Lee, Hoopeston, Ill., and Owensville, Ind., native
“His voice makes me think of my grandma’s kitchen. My grandpa would come in at noon to eat lunch, but would sit at the kitchen table first and listen to the radio. His voice is generations deep within a farm family.” Emily Webel, Farmington, Ill.
“I was an ag banker for over 30 years. Some customers looked to me for information and advice. I looked to Max.” Keith Bradbury, Franklin, Ill.
“There is no other voice like Max’s. He’s like a good preacher. When Max talks, you listen to him, you trust him, you understand his teachings and can follow what he’s saying. He’s got a voice of a great storyteller.” Jenna Kilgus, Fairbury, Ill.
“No ‘fake news’ there.” Colleen Paar Dekker, Fishers, Ind.
“When I hear his voice, I think of the old farm place I grew up at. There is a warm summer breeze blowing through the kitchen and ‘The Noon Show’ is on the radio. My dad and I talk about cutting hay and cultivating after lunch, but we need to catch up on weather and markets before we head out. Miss that voice on WGN every day!” Dennis Mueller, Manhattan, Ill.
“The thing I respect the most is that if you’ve ever met him at all, you learn that he never forgot where he came from — no matter who he’s met or where he’s been.” Craig Lee, Hoopeston, Ill.
“He maintained his compassionate personality, reaching the world with integrity. He brought farmers from the perception of ‘dirt farmers’ to the CEO status they deserve.” Debbie Glover, Bone Gap, Ill.
“He always seems to bring a fair perspective to things, and helps me keep aware of bigger things going on in the ag world when it’s a little easy to lose sight of things when isolated on the farm, and only seeing my backyard.” David Loberg, Carroll, Neb.