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Stories From the Heartland by Max Armstrong and Sarah Smarsh

With his endless curiosity and winning personality, America’s favorite farm broadcaster traveled thousands of miles on air and land. He visited farmers at kitchen tables, in their tractors and combines, and at processing plants. He even got to taste the end product at restaurants!

The choice of rural definition impacts how we use data, how we report and tell stories. It also impacts how rural leaders access federal resources.

Max Armstrong

Max Armstrong is a renowned American Agriculture Broadcaster. He has been working as the Director of Broadcasting at Farm Progress since July 2009. He is also a co-host for This Week in Agribusiness along with Orion Samuelson. His radio program, Farm Progress America and Max Armstrong’s Midwest Digest is aired on more than 140 local radio stations. The program has earned him a plaque on the WGN Radio Walk of Fame, in which he was inducted along with six others in 2016.

He grew up on a farm in Owensville, Indiana and later became an agriculture reporter for the Evansville Courier. He has a unique ability to connect with people from all walks of life and tell their stories. His warm storytelling style and love for people has made him one of the most popular broadcasters in the country.

Over the years, Max has originated broadcasts from every state in the country and over 30 countries. His career has earned him dozens of awards and recognition from agriculture groups, trade associations, and professional organizations. He has received honors as a Purdue “Old Master,” as well as being named a “Noted Alumnus” in the university’s 2009 Facts at Your Fingertips book. In addition, he has been awarded an Alum Certificate of Distinction from the College of Agriculture and a Sagamore of the Wabash, the highest honor given by the governor of Indiana.

Armstrong’s passion for farming and agriculture has led to a successful broadcasting career that spans over three decades. He is well-known for his commitment to accurate reporting on agriculture. He has also hosted television shows for more than 14 years. He currently hosts a weekly agribusiness show on RFD-TV alongside Orion Samuelson. He is a proud member of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting.

In his spare time, he enjoys spending time with his family. He also likes to travel the country and learn more about agriculture. He and his wife Linda live in North Carolina, where they are close to their daughter Kristi, a neonatal intensive care nurse. They have two grandchildren.

Orion Samuelson

Orion Samuelson’s big, booming voice is familiar to Midwesterners who have tuned into radio programs over the past six decades. Orion is well known for his ability to explain agribusiness and food production in a way that makes sense to average listeners. His passion for the subject matter is evident in his broadcasts. In 2003 he was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the Illinois Broadcasters Hall of Fame, the National 4-H Hall of Fame and the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame.

Born in Ontario, Wisconsin, Orion was raised on the family dairy farm. By the age of nine, he was suffering from Legg-Perthes disease (a condition that disrupts the blood flow to the head of the thigh bone and causes bone deterioration). Confined to bed for two years, Orion found escape and adventure through his radio. He listened to baseball games and music, but most of all, he enjoyed hearing the voices of Bert Wilson and Gene Autry calling the Chicago Cubs’ home games on WLS-FM.

Upon graduating from high school, Orion was determined to pursue his dream of becoming a radio announcer. He began his career at a small station in Sparta, Wis. He worked weekends as a polka disc jockey and was able to travel home each evening. He then moved to a larger station in Appleton, Wis. After a few months, Orion got a call from WGN-AM in Chicago, which was looking for an announcer to host its ag news program.

At first, Orion was a little intimidated by the huge studios in the Tribune Tower. He suffered a few flattened tires as he parked in the wrong spot, and missed the market report or two due to slow elevators. But eventually the radio hall of famer settled in at WGN and quickly became one of its most recognizable voices.

In his warm storytelling style, Orion visited with farmers and producers in their kitchens, in their tractors and combines, and even on their farms as they harvested their crops. He learned from their successes and failures and aspired to share their stories with America’s heartland.

Publisher’s Summary

In this collection, Sarah Smarsh writes of her upbringing on a family farm in rural Kansas. She writes about the struggles she faced and how she overcame them with a combination of grit, hard work, and love for her community. She also discusses the racial and economic inequality that exists in America. She is a journalist who has written for the New York Times and The Guardian. She is a 2018 research fellow at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

This is the fifth volume in the Voices from the Plains anthology series. The book features poetry, short stories, flash fiction, memoirs, and excerpts from novels. It also includes a variety of styles and genres, and the writers come from all over the country. The book aims to represent the diversity of the American heartland.

Smarsh’s story is an important one for anyone who wants to understand the problems and challenges of living in rural America. She tells of her childhood in a rural, impoverished community where her mother was a teen mom and many of her relatives struggled with addiction. She describes the hardships that come with growing up poor in a family where the majority of men have substance abuse issues.

She examines how the American dream is a myth that does not apply to the poor. She explains how the poverty that she experienced in her youth has been perpetuated by policies from both Republicans and Democrats. She also examines the effect of the opioid epidemic on her hometown.

Other stories in the collection explore the unique beauty of rural America and the struggles of its residents. For example, in “Not My First Rodeo,” Noem writes about her experiences as a rancher and cowgirl. She shares funny stories about her battles with feisty cattle and rodeo horses. She also talks about her faith and how it has helped her overcome adversity.

Another story in the collection is “Freaks of the Heartland.” This tale evokes Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men with its heartbreaking portrayal of a gentle soul in a callous world. The story is beautifully told with honesty and empathy.

Review

The book’s central thesis is that despite its reputation for being lily white and Republican, rural America has never been monolithic. Its members are diverse, but they are united by a sense of place and an attachment to the land. The stories in the collection range from the soaring aerie of the New Hampshire mountains to the hardworking farm community of Oklahoma City. The book is well researched and written. The authors have an unobtrusive style that allows the reader to become immersed in the lives of people who are both real and sympathetic.

In addition to its focus on the social dimensions of rural life, this work makes a strong case for the importance of rural government. It was the Federal government that shaped much of the country’s landscape, from imposing dams and channeling rivers to bring water to fields and towns to constructing military bases that required rural families to move out in order to make room. Moreover, it was the Federal government that created an extensive network of educational institutions and health care facilities in rural areas. The Federal presence in rural America has been immense and, the authors argue, largely beneficial.

Like a number of other historians who have analyzed American agriculture, Danbom uses an interpretive framework that draws upon social history, cultural history and economic history. His grasp of the subject is impressive and he writes with an assurance that enables him to explain complex ideas in relatively simple terms. Danbom is particularly strong on the Progressive era, the conflict between romantic agrarianism and modernization, and the role of government in serving farming.

The book is a useful resource for those interested in understanding what it means to live in rural America and why so many people are drawn to this part of the nation. It also offers insights into contemporary policy making that seeks to increase the viability of nonmetropolitan America and its contribution to the nation’s environmental and economic wellbeing. However, one of the lessons from this work is that it can be dangerous to use large sweeping generalizations about a group of people who are so diverse in their backgrounds and experiences.

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