George Atkins founded Farm Radio International
By Wilma Blokhuis
SPECIAL TO THE BEAVER
George Stuart Atkins, founder of Farm Radio International and a long-time Oakville resident, died Nov. 30 of kidney failure. He was 92.
Born on July 1, 1917 in Maplewood, NJ, he moved with his family to a small farm in Bronte in 1921 where he grew up and lived until 2002 when he moved to the Owen Sound area.
A memorial service for Atkins is to be held on Jan. 23, 2010, 2 p.m., at Zion-Amabel United Church in Sauble Beach, Ontario. The family asks that donations in Atkins' memory be directed to Farm Radio International. A tree will be planted in his memory in the Memorial Forest of the Grey Sauble Conservation Foundation by the Downs and Son Funeral Home in Hepworth, Ontario.
Following his graduation with a bachelor of science degree in agriculture from the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph, he was recruited by the CBC in 1955. For the next 25 years he was the network's farm and gardening commentator and host. Previously, Atkins ran the family farm for 15 years. He got his start in broadcasting by hosting a junior farmer program radio and television program in Hamilton. He married Janet, nee Blackwood, in 1941 in Guelph.
Atkins founded Farm Radio International, known until recently as the Developing Countries Farm Radio Network, to provide practical farming information to Third World farmers, on May 1, 1979 after retiring from the CBC as its senior agricultural commentator.
Travelling widely for the CBC, in particular, one trip to Africa to conduct a farm radio broadcasting workshop in Zambia in 1975, was the catalyst for Farm Radio International, a non-profit organization, which began with Atkins sending free radio scripts to 34 radio broadcasters in 26 Third World countries from donated office space in Toronto.
In a video produced earlier this year for the organization's 30th anniversary, Atkins recalled how that Africa trip changed his broadcasting career. He recalled how some 20 to 25 participants at the farm radio workshop were crowded into a small bus, three to a seat, for a trip to an experimental farm. Atkins asked his two seatmates, "'What do you tell your farmers?' and I was told, ' I tell them about fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, all the modern methods of farming,'" Atkins said. "I asked, 'What was your last program about?' and he said, 'I told them how to clean and adjust the spark plugs of their tractors.'" Atkins further explained in the video, posted on YouTube, that only one in 10 farmers in Sierra Leone had tractors at the time when the spark plug advice was heard by 800,000 farmers -- the large majority without tractors. He felt the broadcasts should be more relevant, such as giving advice on crop rotation, raising oxen and crop fertilization with animal manure.
Today Farm Radio International, now based in Ottawa, provides more than 40 radio scripts annually, in more than 70 languages, to 700 radio broadcasters in 100 developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, reaching 150 million farmers every month. This amounts to more than 12,000 broadcasts annually. The organization, with a staff of 17, collects ideas from these broadcasters and other sources and converts them into radio scripts.
Known worldwide for his signature sign-off, 'Serving agriculture, the basic industry, this is George Atkins,' he earned numerous awards for his more than 50 years of farm radio broadcasting. He was among 10 Canadians honoured for 'making a difference' at Expo '86 in Vancouver and received the Lewis Perinbam Award in 2004 for his contributions towards improving farming techniques in developing countries. Two years ago, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated $4 million toward expanding Farm Radio International in Africa.
In 1989, Atkins received an honourary doctor of laws degree from the University of Guelph and was named a Member of the Order of Canada.
Atkins is survived by his wife Janet, four daughters and their families.