“I’ve never met a farmer that I didn’t like.”
— Randall Reeder as Will Rogers
In this episode of the No-Till Farmer Influencers & Innovators podcast, brought to you by Source By Sound Agriculture, No-Till Legend and former Ohio State Extension ag engineer Randall Reeder talks about his secondary career portraying the old pop culture icon Will Rogers.
Many people remember Will Rogers for his Hollywood movie stardom or his popular radio broadcasts, but in this podcast episode, Reeder highlights what connects Will Rogers to no-till farming and other conservation agriculture practices. Plus, Reeder recalls the times when he portrayed Will Rogers at the National No-Tillage Conference more than a decade ago.
If you are interested in more no-till history, you’ll find great stories like these and many more in the newly released 448-page second edition of From Maverick to Mainstream: A History of No-Till Farming that includes 32 more pages than the first edition. Order your copy here.
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Welcome to the No-Till Farmer Influencers & Innovators Podcast, brought to you by Source By Sound Agriculture. I'm Mackane Vogel, Assistant Editor of No-Till Farmer. In this episode of the podcast, No-Till legend and former Ohio State Extension Ag Engineer, Randall Reeder, talks about his secondary career, portraying the Hollywood movie icon Will Rogers and what connects Rogers to No-Till Farming and other conservation agriculture practices.Frank Lessiter:
You had a great career as an ag engineer at Ohio State and now retired, but before you retired you took on a second career with Will Rogers. Randall, tell us a little about that and how it got started, et cetera.Randall Reeder:
I've been in a national figure association for years and at a convention in Orlando Florida, 25-26 years ago, a person from Oklahoma saw me and said, "You got to be Will Rogers," because I look like him. That's how I got started.Frank Lessiter:
You grew up in West Virginia, so you had that twang maybe that Will Rogers had.Randall Reeder:
Yeah, I sound enough like Will Rogers anywhere other than Oklahoma, as passable.Frank Lessiter:
How did you get this launched? Well, tell us what you do as a Will Rogers man.Randall Reeder:
Well, I write a weekly comments. I started doing that soon afterwards and it's already over 1,100 of those that I've written. Then of course I do speaking across the country. When I first got started, and I hope these recordings don't exist, but one of the first ones I did was at the National No-Till conference, where I did a few minutes of Will Rogers quotes.Frank Lessiter:
You got any idea what year that was?Randall Reeder:
Go back 25 years.Frank Lessiter:
That would be 1997 maybe, 96 or 97.Frank Lessiter:
We launched your career with the No-Till conference, got you started?Randall Reeder:
You got me. Yeah, you got me started, all right. That's for sure. I enjoy having no-Till Farmers on my weekly comments list and I get comments from them once in a while, reactions on what I'm writing about today and including Will Rogers quotes, and his wisdom applies forever, Frank. I always include at least one or two Will Rogers quotes. This week, the one I just wrote and sent out yesterday was about the debt limit situation, and I put in about five or six quotes by Will Rogers that if the government had followed his advice for the last hundred years, we wouldn't have any debt crisis.Frank Lessiter:
If you're given a speech to a group and say you're talking for 45 minutes or an hour, give me a little outline of what you might talk about during that time.Randall Reeder:
Well, altogether I do ... Of course, I've got to include some politics. It's balanced. I've got some comments about both the Republicans and the Democrats. Then of course I have to ... I'll just start with the close here. I close with the well known quote, and I use the full amount of it that I've joked about every prominent man in my life, that I never met a man I didn't like. I can hardly wait to die. I want to see that on my tombstone, and I can hardly wait to die to see it carved. That's part of the inspirational part at the ending. It's more inspirational when I've been doing it live in person. When I'm talking to agriculture groups, I always include a little bit about soil conservation, the dust bowl, and I'll be glad to share that with you if you want to hear it right now.Frank Lessiter:
Sure. No, go ahead. Go ahead.Randall Reeder:
All right, well I'll take off my no-till hat and put on my Will Rogers hat, just to make it authentic. This is the way I would present it in a talk. Here we go. You folks are conservation minded. Most of you are too young to remember what I consider to be the worst single soil conservation calamity to hit this country, and I lived through it. Of course, that was the dust bowl. In March 1935, I wrote this, I said, "I flew through these dust storms yesterday with the pilot flying entirely by instruments. Now, it's a terrible thing and it's going to bring up some peculiar legal cases. See, if Colorado blows over and lights on top of Kansas, it looks kind of like Kansas ought to have to pay them for the extra topsoil, but Kansas can sue them for covering up their crops. It's gotten so bad that a farmer goes out to check his field. He looks down at it and, ugh, it's up above him. You got to put a brand on your soil and then in the spring go on a roundup looking for it."
That was near the end of March 1935. Then I added a radio broadcast that I did on April 14th, 1935. I'll tell you the significance of that after I go through this. I always add this now, "I hope my Cherokee blood is not making me prejudiced in what I'm going to say about the pioneers. Now, you may not agree with everything, but I think you'll agree with the slant that I took on, at least for a couple of ideas." Here's what I said on the radio back in April 14th, 1935. Here we go. "Well, we're always talking about pioneers and what great folks the old pioneers were. Well, I think if we just stopped and looked at history in the face, that pioneer wasn't a thing in the world, but a guy that wanted something for nothing.
"He was a guy that wanted to live off of everything that nature had done. Well, he wanted to cut a tree down that didn't cost him anything, but he never did plant one. He wanted to plow up land that should have been left to grass. We're just now learning that we can rob from nature the same way we can rob from an individual. Now, all he had was an ax and a plow and a gun. He just went out and lived off nature. Really, he thought it was nature he was living off of, but what he was really living off of was future generations." Now, that's authentic. That's what Will Rogers said on the radio. Now, the date April 14th, 1935 is significant, because that became known as Black Sunday. It was the worst single day out of a couple of years of the dust storms out there.
Oddly enough, it started out as a bright sunny day, nice and warm. It was on Sunday obviously, and people drove to church or they walked to church. About noon, the dust hit them like a wall. I'm sure just about everybody who's listening to this podcast has seen photos of that dust just looming over houses, and the results of it with topsoil piled up around farm machinery and around buildings.Frank Lessiter:
What made Will Rogers famous? Go back and he was from Oklahoma, but what made him different?Randall Reeder:
How did he get famous? Well, it started out he started learning how to do rope tricks when he was four years old. A former slave that worked on the ranch for his dad, taught the kids how to do lasso tricks, and now will kept with it. He kept getting better and better and better, and he became a world-class trick roper, period.
Now, my point is, and I always express this when I'm talking to young groups, youth, that if that's all he did, you would not really know about him. There's a lot of really good trick ropers, but he took advantage of his opportunities. Being world-class trick roper got him on the Vaudeville stage, which was live shows back in that day, back from about 1905, up through, well for about 10 years. That got him on what I call the Cadillac of vaudeville shows, the Ziegfeld Follies in New York City.Frank Lessiter:
Sure, there you go.Randall Reeder:
It was the very top one. While he was performing with Flo Ziegfeld, of course being in New York City, journalists would come around and they would often write about things that he said in the newspapers the next day, that got attention of a fellow whose last name was Goldfish, who was starting to make silent movies.
Now, back then, all the movies were silent. In 1918, he asked Will to be in a silent movie, and at that time the movies were made in New Jersey. You remember Thomas Edison invented the movie projector and a lot of things like that. They were in New Jersey. That's where the first ones were made. This fellow named Goldfish said, "We'd be a lot better off to move to California rather than trying to do movies in New Jersey." Will, along with the movie, they moved to California, Hollywood, Los Angeles, and this fellow whose name was Goldfish, changed his name to Goldwyn. Now, everybody-Frank Lessiter:
Yeah, MGM Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. That got Will into the silent movies and he made about 50 of them. Now, Will was just average in the silent movies, but in terms of the movies he really became a star when the movies started talking in 1927 or '28, and he made 21 talking movies and became a star.
He was the top star in Hollywood for at least two years, 1934-35, until his death; top paid movie star. Think of Tom Cruise or somebody like that, in terms of the movies. That was the movie part of it. Then let me back up, because he started writing newspaper columns and started one called, now referred to as Weekly Articles in 1922, so a hundred years ago. Think of that as an op-ed in the newspaper.Frank Lessiter:
There you go.Randall Reeder:
He continued writing those weekly, the rest of his life, over 600 of those. Then in 1927, he was in Europe covering a peace conference. Keep in mind, this was after the World War, which we now know as World War I. The publisher of the New York Times said, "Will, why don't you send us a report every day?"
By Telegram, Will started what became known as the Daily Telegrams, and those are typically one or two paragraphs and were published five or six days a week. Newspapers across the country syndicated, just like the weekly articles were syndicated also. He wrote about 2,500 of those altogether. Then radio. He was on radio for a while on Sunday nights. Preachers across the country didn't appreciate it because about a 15-minute broadcast, so people would stay home on Sunday night instead of going to church. Think about this. He was writing newspaper columns, was in the movies and on radio, and can you imagine it would take at least a half a dozen people in today's society to replace what all he was doing all at one time.Mackane Vogel:
We'll come back to the episode in a moment, but first I'd like to thank our sponsor, Source by Sound Agriculture for supporting today's podcast. Source by Sound Agriculture unlocks more of the nitrogen and phosphorus in your field so you can rely less on expensive fertilizer. This foliar application has a low use rate and you can mix it right into your tank. Check out Source. It's like caffeine for microbes. Learn more at sound.ag. Now, let's get back to the conversation.Frank Lessiter:
You talked about him being a trick rope guy. I seem to remember in your early days, you tried some rope stuff on the stage, didn't you?Randall Reeder:
I do one little rope trick in my talks. It's called the flat loop. At one time, I could do the wedding ring, but it hurt my shoulder, and so I don't do it anymore. Here's the fun part: there's little ropes that I've got and I'll get half a dozen people up on the stage to do the rope trick with me, and we have a lot of fun with that.Frank Lessiter:
How many talks would you give on Will Rodgers in a typical year across the country?Randall Reeder:
Oh, not as many as I should. It's been a downtime. I've frequently joked that the best audience for Will Rogers, well, the best audience for any humorist, is women. For Will Rogers, the best audience is women who are at least 80 years old. That's a declining audience. I'm still doing talks, but right at the moment I don't have any scheduled, but I sure did one in for the Tennessee Cattleman earlier in January, so still doing them. It's still fun to do. I still enjoy writing the weekly comments, and that keeps me fresh and keeps giving me current information. A typical talk that I would do would be about 75% authentic Will Rogers, in other words, his actual thing he wrote and said, and about 25%, I bring it up to date. Where Will said something about Herbert Hoover, I might substitute Donald Trump or something like that, or Joe Biden. That way, it keeps it current as well as historical.Frank Lessiter:
Well, you mentioned that you had talked to Tennessee Cattleman a month or so ago, and I remember seeing a comment from one of our no-till innovators, John Bradley, who had been at that meeting from Tennessee, and one of the real leaders in no-till over the years and now running his own little beef cattle farm. He spoke very highly of you talking about Will Rogers in your presentation.Randall Reeder:
Well, John Bradley was the one who was responsible for inviting me there. You can see that no-till farmers have influence all across the country, including on invitations to Will Rogers.Frank Lessiter:
I see that you go down in Oklahoma for a couple of the Will Rogers celebrations every year. Right?Randall Reeder:
There's a birthday celebration on November the fourth, and I go to that. I've been to that just about every year since, well, the last 25 years. Then they also hold a celebration around April the 15th, which was the day that he and Wiley Post died back in 1935. They have what's called a fly-in, small airplanes, often at least 100 of them will be there. That was a good event that I went to this past August.
While we're promoting it, the Will Rogers Memorial and Museum is there. They're making a big expansion and expect to have that completed in three years, by 2026. 2026 is also the hundredth anniversary of Historic Route 66, from Chicago to Los Angeles. It goes right through downtown Claremore, which is Well Rogers' hometown, and it ends at the Pacific Ocean at Pacific Palisades there in the Los Angeles area. That's where Will Rogers ... Well, the Will Rogers State Park is located there. He bought 180 acres. He said, "I can call it a ranch," even though it's not, and it's still there. His wife donated it to the state of California as a state park.Frank Lessiter:
Pam and I were at a party maybe two or three weeks ago and there was a couple there and they were talking about what travel plans they were going to make this summer and this couple was going to retrace Route 66 from Chicago all the way to California. They were going to drive it.Randall Reeder:
That is a popular thing for tourists to do. I have a friend who was the Ford Model T Club. He's in Tulsa, but that's another thing that people with antique vehicles like to travel, at least part of Route 66. You don't have to do the whole thing from Chicago, but just being on it, it's amazing. Part of that original exists right there around Claremore and Oologah, Oklahoma.Frank Lessiter:
Alice Busser who used to work for us, and her late husband Mike, and then two no-tillers from southern Indiana, Rich and Marcy Little, shipped their motorcycles to California years ago, and then they rode Route Route 66 back to Chicago.Randall Reeder:
Wow. That would be a big deal. Various places, you might imagine this started out ... in fact, there were some places where it was so steep back there in 1926, that Model T Ford had to back up the hill, because it had more power in reverse and I think it may have had something to do with the gasoline tank location too. Route 66 was improved over the years, but there are various pieces and you can look it up, various places where the original pavement still exists.Frank Lessiter:
We got you launched with Will Rogers at the No-Till conference 25 years ago, and we've done 31 of these conferences. You're one of five people who've made all 31 conferences. What's kept you coming back all these years?Randall Reeder:
Oh, well the first two or three of them, you put me to work. As an extension ag engineer at Ohio State. I was very willing to help out.Frank Lessiter:
Well, you [inaudible 00:20:39] that, right?Randall Reeder:
I still help out some, yes. Glad to do that. Back then, you had kind of a skeleton crew, Frank. You needed all the help you could get and you were attracting two or three times as many people as you expected, at least at the first one. It's just great information every year, and one of my goals is to get to listen to top speakers and then sometimes invite some of those to our own conferences that I'm in charge of here in Ohio. It has that purpose also.Frank Lessiter:
I think the first conference we had, there was Pam and I and our daughter Kelly and Alice, and Dave Ernst, who worked at with us at the time. There were five people. Now, we take maybe 15 to keep up.Randall Reeder:
It's a big difference, and I know I didn't do this at the first one, but I know you had people like me in extension across the country that would bring our own slide projectors or overhead projectors.Frank Lessiter:
Oh yeah. Right.Randall Reeder:
TO help out. Everything's improved.Frank Lessiter:
Right. Over the years, several times when it's been a presidential year, we've had you and Will Rogers get up on the stage and run the presidential campaign among no-tillers. Tell us about that.Randall Reeder:
Okay. I know we did that twice and that was always fun. Get people there, the farmers or a couple of staff people to play the role of different candidates. I think we did it before 2008 and also maybe before 2012. Some of the memorable ones were Alice Busser from your staff played Hillary Clinton. One year, Rudy Giuliani, he couldn't show up, but his third wife showed up, and that was Brie. I think she got interrupted by his next wife, which-Frank Lessiter:
There you go. Right.Randall Reeder:
Then one year, Santorum from Pennsylvania, Steve Groff portrayed Santorum as a Republican candidate, and he actually won because Steve was so persuasive as the candidate. That worked out really well. Maybe we'll do that again this next one in January. I'm already thinking ahead, Frank, that we have Joe Biden. Maybe you can portray Joe Biden. I think that you might fit in that role pretty well.Frank Lessiter:
I'm getting old enough to be him and I stumble around and mumble enough to be him.Randall Reeder:
Yeah. We'll have to have a Donald Trump there. I was just thinking ahead that maybe we get both heavy up there on stage at the same time, Trump and Biden, and we'll have a couple of FBI agents sneak up behind you and put handcuffs on you to drag you off the stage and to make it authentic. Now, you might think that would be because of all these classified documents that these two guys have hidden at their homes, but really these would be fake FBI agents and they just want to get these old because off the stage so that the new ones, younger ones can come up and run. I'm already thinking about ideas for a year from now on that.Frank Lessiter:
All right, good. Going back to Will Rogers, what would Will Rogers think of no-till and soil health and cover crops today?Randall Reeder:
Well, you think about one thing, and I'll emphasize the line, is that talking about the old pioneer, he wrote that the old pioneer wanted to plow up land that should have been left to grass. We wouldn't leave it the grass today, but we don't plow it anymore, just no-till and cover crops, and the crop that we're growing for cash can definitely fill in and serve the same role as native grass. Will was all in favor of that. There was another one where he joked ... well, he didn't joke as much as making a serious comment, that Franklin Roosevelt had proposed planting a line of trees all north to south along the Great Plains there, as a wind barrier.
The Republicans poked fun at him planting these saplings and Will said, "Well, in 10 years, if we'd had them in 10 years, we'd all be happy that they were there." Of course, that never happened, but think of all the wind breaks that farmers have planted in the last few years, and other conservation measures that we're taking.
Here's an interesting thing about the Dust Bowl. That was in the 1930s. It was dry, but there was a five-year period, five to eight years ago in Oklahoma when they had no more ... the rainfall for those five years was no more than it was in the 1930s at the height of the Dust Bowl, but we did not have a dust bowl five years ago because of various conservation practices that our farmers have used since we learned our lesson from all the soil erosion, especially from wind and water since the 1930s.Frank Lessiter:
Anything you'd like to talk about you or Will that we've missed talking about before we wind this up?Randall Reeder:
I think we've covered it. As a self-promotion, I'll say that my website is willrogerstoday.com. As I say, I'm writing. I've got a lot of Will Rogers quotes on that website, if you want to look it up. In addition to talking to Cattleman, of course I enjoy talking to groups like soil and water conservation districts, at their annual meetings and any other agricultural event. I wrote a book a few years ago and I got permission to use this title for it. It's Will Roger's quotes about agriculture, ranching, anything to do with agriculture, and the title of the book is: I Never Met a Farmer I Didn't Like.Frank Lessiter:
There you go.Randall Reeder:
I still have a few of those. That's the self-promotion for Will Rogers-Frank Lessiter:
That's fine. [inaudible 00:27:32] We appreciate what you've done for us at the No-Till conference over the years. You've always been a great person to try and bounce ideas off and help us out when we're shorthanded. You've made a great career out of Will Rogers, and I want to thank you for doing that. I'm glad to know that we played a small part in getting this launched with you, so appreciate it.Randall Reeder:
You absolutely did, and I'm looking forward to Indianapolis next January.Frank Lessiter:
Okay, that's great.Mackane Vogel:
That's it for this episode of A No-Till Farmer Influencers and Innovators podcast. Thanks to Randall Reader for joining us, and thanks again to our sponsor, Sourced by Sound Agriculture, for helping to make this series possible. A transcript of this episode and our archives of previous podcast episodes are both available at no-tillfarmer.com. For our entire staff here at No-Till Farmer, I'm Mackane Vogel. Thanks for listening. Keep on no-tilling and have a great day.