By Ty Higgins, Ohio Ag Net
This picture is one of the most iconic pictures in the history of agriculture. Back in the early 80s you couldn’t go to a farm house, implement dealer or sale barn without seeing this poster somewhere on the wall. Seeing it recently for the first time in a long time piqued my curiosity and I wanted to know what ever happened to these two boys (who are in there 40s now)? So I Googled it. Here is what I found.
One of the first links that popped up was a Pinterest posting from 2009. The mother of the two bib-donning photo stars, Deni Overton, wrote about how the picture came to be and the interest it garnered for years to come. She wrote:
Have you seen this picture before?
I took this picture of my twin sons in September, 1978.
Did you know that it is one of the most recognized posters in history? Believe it or not, over one million copies have been sold all over the world. If you are connected with farming or live in a farming community, you most likely have seen it many times.
Whenever someone I know sees the poster somewhere, they usually report back to us. Reports range from Europe to most of the mid-Western U.S. to Canada.
I’ve also heard some versions of where it was taken, when it was taken, and how it was taken that were totally false!
So, as Paul Harvey always says…”Now you know the rest of the story”…or you will, if you read all of this!
I have to admit, it’s a pretty cool story for just starting out as one of many, many proud mom’s photo opportunities!!
When I took this picture of my twin sons, Matt and Chris, in September, 1978, they were only 1-1/2 years old. At that time, we lived on “the mesa”, just across from a little town called San Miguel, CA (northern San Luis Obispo County). An overnight visitor was on her way home that morning and wanted a couple pictures of the boys before she left. So, I got my camera out and took a few also. After all, they had their brand new OshKosh overalls on!
When the photos came back, there was that one extra-special shot–the lighting was just right, the focus just right, and the expression was priceless. I enjoyed showing it off to people, and decided to enter it in the San Luis Obispo County Fair (now known at the Mid-State Fair). Well, there were 2 other photos in the same class as mine-and mine came in 3rd place! But, it drew a crowd. So many people liked it that they were looking up my name in the phone book in order to ask if they could buy a reprint.
Over the next couple of years the photo was used on a Guernsey cow breeder’s magazine, a Babson Bros. dairy equipment company calendar and then a Saturday newspaper supplement cover that was syndicated across the U.S. I sold a number of 8 x 10’s to many people over this time period. I also mailed a copy to the OshKosh company. They sent back a very nice letter and a couple of OshKosh bandannas for the boys with this explanation: “Thank you for sending your photo; however, we have no plans at this time to use children in any of our advertising.” I can only speculate that they thought the boys looked so cute in those overalls that they decided to start a children’s line of clothing. They certainly do well with their children’s line!
Anyway, one day in 1982, I got a telephone call. By this time, we had just moved to Hanford, CA in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley–BIG farming area! The call was from a man named Roy Reiman, a publisher of magazines mainly geared to “country” type people. His company is based in Wisconsin.
His daughter took him to somewhere on her college campus where the photo of Matt & Chris was hanging on a bulletin board. From that he somehow tracked me down and called. He said he had an idea for using the picture on the first issue of a new magazine he was about to publish–Country Kids. He got my address so that he could make an offer in writing on the use of the photo. I remember him acting like a contract was only a formality for him because he was so honest and believes in that good ol’ “country handshake” being as good as a legal contract.
When I received the offer, he had decided he wanted to do a poster instead of the cover and then he would offer one poster free for each new subscription to Country Kids. He offered me $250 for that use or else ½ cent for every poster that they sold. Since my clothes dryer had just died, the prudent thing really seemed to be to take the enclosed check for $250. (Yeah, yeah, don’t say it!) The agreement was made for posters only, though.
The poster came out with the caption “You been farming long?” on it and that seemed to be exactly what it took for people to love it. A few months later, I found out that the Reiman Company had started making note cards that were just like the poster. I contacted an attorney. That was the smart thing I did! He negotiated with Reiman and came to an agreement that 6% of the gross sales was to be paid to me on a monthly basis for the use of the photo on anything other than the posters. From that point on, I received a monthly royalty check from Reiman. They sent a statement of amounts sold along with each check. They were selling anything and everything they came up with in the line now known as “Little Farmers”-playing cards, figurines, salt & pepper shakers, porcelain dolls-and they sold like hotcakes! The company grew and grew over this time, and the royalty checks were pretty nice–especially around Christmas time.
When Matt and Chris were about 8 years old, Reiman called and asked me to take an “update” photo. He wanted the boys to dress the same as they did in the original photo for submission in an article “Where are they now?” kind of thing. Well, we did it-and it didn’t translate to a great photo. I didn’t think it worked at all. They also had our local paper come out and take a photo of the 3 of us for the same article. They asked again when they were about 13–same thing. The last time they asked for an update photo, I told them no way–don’t ask again. Here’s why:
About 5 years later, I noticed that the checks had kind of dwindled but they were still coming out with new “Little Farmer” items in their catalog, especially a lot of figurines where they would have Matt (red hat) alone or Chris (blue hat) alone. When I checked my printouts, I realized that they were not paying royalties for any of these–and hadn’t been for quite awhile. By my calculations, they owed me thousands of dollars in unpaid royalties. I contacted Reiman–and then my attorney. It seems somewhere along the line they had gotten “too big for their britches”! They told me that the single figurines were not necessarily a likeness of Matt & Chris’ photo–only the double figurines were! Somewhere the company had decided that honoring their agreement, whether of the legal or “country handshake” variety was no longer important. Actually, it probably never was if they could find a way around it. And they did. They told me that if I pushed the issue-they would just stop selling Little Farmer items altogether. They made a settlement for about 1/6 of what they owed-and told me to “like it or lump it” (my words)! They have not ever come out with new “Little Farmer” items since that time anyway.
The good side of the story is that I know my picture has brought many people pleasure, and for some it’s nostalgic of their early childhood, etc. So, royalties aren’t everything!
To be able to bring such feeling that someone would write to me to express it is worth more than money can buy!
Then I came across a post on a message board that I frequent, New Ag Talk, but I missed this particular conversation when it originally happen last year.
A person with the screen name “Big Ben” had the same curiosity I had when he saw the picture show up again on social media. He wrote:
I saw a post on Facebook with a picture of this famous poster, and couldn’t help but wonder if anyone on here knows more about it. Where was it taken? What are the boys doing now?
A few months later, after many memories were shared on the message board about the picture, someone with the screen name Blue Cap chimed in:
It is nice to see so many people with good memories of our picture. I like to look up the phrase “You been farming long” to see what turns up, and it always brings a smile to my face.
My name is Chris, and I am the one on the right in the blue cap. My brother and I live in Fresno, CA and are now 38 years old. We both have children now who are much more photogenic than us. My brother has a two year old boy and I have two girls, ages four and six.
My Mom, who took the photo, now lives in the little town of Lompoc, CA. She has looked into the copyright, which is now owned by Reader’s Digest. The problem is that they are a huge organization and this contract that would give them exclusive rights is just an old piece of paper buried in an old file cabinet somewhere. It isn’t really worth their interest and I suspect they may not even know where to look to find it (if they even still have it). Aside from the unpleasant business with Reiman, we have a lot of good memories of this old picture and don’t feel like it is worth more unpleasantness to try to get the contract out of Reader’s Digest. We are all doing fine, and so we need not make ourselves miserable over a little money.
Thank you again for all the kind words and for sharing your memories.
No, thank you Chris! That one split second with your brother, captured by the quick snap of your Mom’s camera has been a staple of American agriculture from the moment it was printed. And it’s nice to hear that you’re all are doing well.