He speaks for farmers, but his own work speaks for itself
At the wheel of a Jeep towing a loaded people-mover last weekend, Dennis Riggs drove right beside vintage combines cutting corn at the Half Century of Progress show.
"I have people on here from several different states, some who know nothing about agriculture and some farmers who want to know all about yields and test weights," said Riggs as his 1961 Jeep Forward Control DRW, one of several in his collection, cruised runways and fields at the former Chanute Air Force Base at Rantoul.
"I like to give them a good look at what these machines do in the field," he said. "There are shows you can go to to look at machines in a row, but this is different. Here a good coat of dust means more than a good coat of wax. Here you can see it growl through the field."
Riggs, a member of show sponsor I&I Antique Tractor and Gas Engine Club, has been an enthusiastic spokesman for agriculture since he was a young farmer just out of Parkland College.
Multitasking is his specialty.
He farms, and he's been a leader introducing computer technology to farmers and rural residents. He runs the Sidney Dairy Bar, a business he purchased so his children would have work in the summer. He owns a computer repair business at Sidney, and he owns housing in the village. And Riggs sells Jeeps and Dodge trucks at Shelby Motors, Champaign.
"I only do things I like to do and represent products I'm proud of, whether it's homemade ice cream, vehicles or services," he said.
Riggs never intended to farm. At ABL High School – since merged into the Heritage district – he excelled at electronics, which he studied for a year after high school. But when his father retired in 1977, Riggs took over the family farm in Raymond Township. In short order he also:
– Earned two degrees from Parkland.
– Married Marcia Shanks of Villa Grove and started a family.
– Worked as an engineer and broadcaster for two radio stations.
– Installed electronic marketing systems.
– Worked as a spokesman for the Champaign County Farm Bureau.
"I was there for the drought of '83, and I was there for Farm Aid in '85 making a public relations effort for the rock 'n' roll media," Riggs said. "I was quoted in Rolling Stone, in The New York Times, on BBC. We had a blast."
"He's so sincere and he's so good at simplifying a complicated business," said Dennis Vercler, director of news and communication for the Illinois Farm Bureau. "Farm Aid showed how good he was at media relations. We had 1,000 media people registered. We wanted to tell farmers' stories, but they were there for a musical event."
The farm bureau hired a bus to take journalists to a rural Champaign farm.
"Dennis stood in front with his arm around his son and told them what it was like to farm in Champaign County," Vercler said. "It was brilliant. He talked simply about problems farmers faced. That helps when you're talking about agriculture."
Riggs' passion for electronics earned him a place on the ground floor when agriculture information systems began to evolve. He installed the farm bureau's first one-way marketing system in 1978 and subsequent systems. Riggs, who purchased his first Commodore 64 computer in 1981, brought Internet service to Sidney in 1998 and started his computer repair shop to help people who need it.
Today, Riggs' main computer is his laptop. "I work at the farm, at my Sidney office and at Shelby's, and I can take it with me," he said.
Riggs' passion for Jeeps started shortly after he was married in 1978. He has several antique Jeeps, and he started the "Jeeps on the Farm" club to focus on the Jeep's postwar use as farm equipment. But his favorite antique is his grandfather's 1935 John Deere B.
"He bought it from Allerton Implements, and it's never been off the farm," he said. "(Fellow I&I member) Seif Buhr helped me restore it. I can do the easy stuff, like painting, but I learned long ago to let people who know what they're doing finish the hard stuff."
Riggs, who's made a career of identifying unmet needs and solving them, says he'll never retire.
"Retirement is people doing things they always wanted to do, and I'm already doing that," Riggs said. "I like working with people who make things happen. I think it's important to deal with good people and try to raise yourself to a higher level."
But he said agriculture is the basis of everything he does.
"Agriculture's a unique business and I've been given opportunities," Riggs said. "I've had (former Senator) Ed Madigan in my tool shed. I've been a master of ceremonies at an ethanol rally on the same platform with (U.S. Sen.) Bob Dole and (the first) President Bush. But I enjoy calling bingo for the fire department just as much."
Vercler said Riggs helped him at December Illinois Farm Bureau annual meetings by sitting in the press room listening to policy action and answering reporters' questions about it.
"One year he'd been Christmas shopping and he'd bought a little plastic space gun that sparked," Vercler said. "Every time something important happened, he shot sparks out of that gun. That sums up Dennis: knowledge, enthusiasm and fun."