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Backstory: A farmer who tills the airwaves

By Ariel SabarCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 22, 2007



FORT MYERS, FLA.

For more than a decade, the humorist known to radio listeners in Maine as "The humble Farmer" threw a summer picnic in his backyard, with free lobster for all comers.

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Word got out, and after a few years people "from away" – Bostonians, New Yorkers – were rolling up to his farmhouse in St. George, Maine, in overflowing charter buses. Robert Skoglund – aka The humble Farmer, neighbor humble, or your buddy humble – reveled in it. These were his fans. Or they would be, once they heard his radio show or read his newspaper column or saw his stand-up act at some local banquet hall.

To his wife Marsha, though, they were mostly just people who wanted free lobster. And in 1994, skeptical of its value and alarmed at the expense, she insisted he stop.

"It was the greatest marketing tool," says a still touchy Mr. Skoglund, who is 71 now and has striking blue eyes, high cheekbones, and a slightly unpredictable, manic energy. "Marsha couldn't see that you have to fertilize the field before the crops will grow."

After 28 years on Maine public radio, and at an age when many neighbors in a mobile home park here in Florida are swinging golf clubs or gliding past the swaying palms on three-wheeler bikes, The humble Farmer is still tilling those fields. He spends so many hours making his radio show that he rarely steps out into the glorious sunshine. He is so short on cash – he gets $30 a show – that he still fishes for stand-up gigs at local trailer parks while wintering here, accepting fees that are often as old-fashioned as the jazz records on his show.

Even before the era of lobster giveaways, the love of fans – the sense that he was enriching their lives in some way – always mattered more than money. But these days, as he looks back over his life, he has begun to wonder whether that has been enough.

***

Skoglund never looked for a life in radio. After aborted careers as a jazz musician and schoolteacher, he returned to his rural roots, digging gardens and mowing fields in the same Maine county his ancestors settled in 1734.

In 1978, public-radio producers noticed his gag personals in a Maine newspaper ("Antique dealer seeks attractive young woman interested in one nightstand") and asked him to host a weekly jazz and humor show. A decade later, at the height of his popularity, The Boston Herald ran a cover story calling him "New England's Answer to Garrison Keillor."

Skoglund has a master's degree in linguistics and his on-air persona is that of a thinking-man's rustic, always one or two brain cells ahead of all those ridiculous city folk. His humor – delivered between 1930s-era jazz records in short segments he calls "rants" – is by turns wry, cryptic, and cranky, a hybrid of Mr. Keillor, Andy Rooney, and that grandpa from the "Pepperidge Farm Remembers" ads, served up with a crotchety Down-East accent.

The touchstones of his show, on Friday evenings, are small-town life, high prices, and people "from away." But he often veers onto tangents as esoteric as Chomskian linguistics, Parisian restaurants, and the gulag.

"Now I know that you have read 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' and probably other accounts of prison life," he said in one rant, after mentioning a friend whose father survived nine years in Siberia. "So even if you have been spared this particular form of cultural enrichment, you know what was going on in Russian prison camps 50-so years ago.... Can you think of anything that would take more out of you than a prison camp in Siberia? Years later, they put the old man in a nursing home in Maine. And he died the next day."

The humble Farmer drew a respectable 13,000 listeners per show last spring, according to Arbitron figures. For many devotees, Skoglund is a precious relic from an age when public radio was a forum for distinctive local voices. "It's a show you want to have on when you're working a piece of wood with a chisel," says Matt Dunlap, Maine's secretary of State and a longtime listener. "It is kind of this country common sense that he reflects against everything."

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