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Sunday, September 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Fabulous Farm Babe Pam Jahnke is a bold voice for Wisconsin agriculture
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Credit:Sharon Vanorny

On a soggy spring morning Pam Jahnke greets me from the top of the stairs at Mid-West Family Broadcasting's west-side office. A broken foot bone makes walking up and down steps painful for her. Her tennis shoes are loosely laced. "Boot cast?" I suggest, having fractured a few metatarsals myself, and she scoffs at the idea. Despite her handicap, we race-walk through a tour of the building that houses the company's seven radio stations. Her voice booms down the hall as she describes each station's format and shouts greetings to pals. "Loud" is the first word most people use to describe her.

At the end of the tour we stop to talk in Jahnke's small office, which doubles as a studio. A microphone and mixing board dominate her desk, and a TV camera and monitor sit on a shelf on the opposite wall. A corner table holds a stack of seemingly neglected plaques and certificates. Occasionally she pauses our conversation to swivel around and record a midday broadcast, never relying on notes, never restarting or editing what she recorded.

For almost 25 years, Jahnke -- a.k.a. the Fabulous Farm Babe -- has been a distinctive, authoritative voice for Wisconsin agriculture. Her broadcasts air on 17 radio stations across the state and on Madison's WISC-TV. They vary in length from 30 seconds to an hour. They cover daily commodity prices as well as new developments in seed genetics or farm equipment. She tailors her delivery to the listening audience. For a station whose format is "hot country," she increases her tempo and exaggerates her inflection, giving "Warm weather around the Midwest has the trade on edge!" the same vigor that another host might use to announce, "Kimye tied the knot in Florence last week!"

Jahnke especially enjoys producing her one-hour show that airs at 5 a.m. daily. "Agriculture is not a subject that is easily dealt with in 30- and 60-second increments," she says. "Agriculture is a science. You don't explain science in snippets. You better not. Or you're doing a disservice not only to agriculture, but also to the listener because you're not giving them everything."

She interviews experts including scientists, educators, government officials and industry representatives. To catch her audience's attention, she taps those with accents foreign to Wisconsin ears. Covering this year's Midwest Horse Fair, for example, she shared the mic with men from Texas and Australia. She cared more about the sounds of their voices than what they said. "You don't really want to hear me doing all the talking," she says. "It's just white noise after a while. I want you to hear what that person says and how they say it."

Jahnke arrives at the office at 2:30 a.m. to prepare for her daily, 5-to-6 a.m. broadcast. After that, she might go home for a catnap, since home is only three miles away. She returns to the station by the time markets open at 9. Before noon she records her midday radio reports. She appears on WISC-TV's noon news, then works until mid-afternoon. In the evening, she often speaks at banquets or meetings, for which she is sometimes paid in steaks or other farm products. She tries to get to sleep around 10 p.m.

"Is it a nine-to-five? Far from it," she says. "Is farming a nine-to-five? Not on your life. And that's something I always try to remind myself and my assistants. If you're starting to feel sorry for yourself, think about the farm audience you're talking to. Because they may have been up for hours already taking care of a cow that's having trouble with a calf, a fence and trying to get that crop in. Never, ever think that you're working as hard as the audience you serve. Ever. Ever."

'Redneck farm broadcaster'

Farm broadcasting was all Jahnke wanted to do and all she's ever done.

"I'm a spoiled brat. I've gotten to live pretty much anything I can dream up."

She grew up as the fourth generation on a 40-head dairy farm in tiny Abrams, Wis., just north of Green Bay. As a preteen, she was announcing at the county fair. At 16, she was crowned Oconto County Dairy Queen, a role that led to meeting one of her mentors, northeast Wisconsin farm broadcaster Mike Austin.

"I thought, 'He is the bomb. I want to do exactly what he's doing in the way he's doing it,'" she recalls.

She, too, made an immediate impression. "I could see right away that she was confident, outgoing and a great advocate for the industry," says Austin.

Jahnke's father would not allow her to attend college in Madison because, he said, the people there were "just a bunch of free thinkers." Instead, she enrolled at UW-River Falls, where a lot of students had farm backgrounds and aspired to careers in agriculture. An adviser suggested combining her agriculture curriculum with journalism. Ag journalism was not a major at UW-River Falls then, but the dean, recognizing her ambition, created a program specially for her. She interned at Eau Claire's WAXX with Bob Bosold, the farm broadcaster there. According to Bosold, who became Jahnke's mentor and longtime colleague, she was confident, capable and "eager to learn how to do it right."

Soon she established a farm report on the university's radio station, the first such student broadcast in the state. "When I cracked the microphone at UW-River Falls in 1983, the minute I started this, I knew this is literally what God means for me to do," she says.

In the mid-1980s, farms were struggling. Some producers were shooting beef calves because the animals cost more to raise than they would earn at market. Loan rates were 15% to 20%. Farmers dug trenches across their driveways or barricaded themselves indoors with guns to prevent bank officers from repossessing their properties. Jahnke, who calls herself a student of history as well as agriculture and technology, paid close attention to what was happening. She felt passionate about defending farmers in their own language.

After a few years in smaller Wisconsin markets, in 1990, on a dare, Jahnke applied for a job in Madison. She got it. But her husband, Randy, whom she calls Buck, stayed in the Eau Claire area. They maintained a commuter marriage for four years because she was afraid she wouldn't fit with Madison. Coming from a small town, she says, "My biggest fear was that I wouldn't know my neighbors. I'm kind of gregarious and very much about grilling in the back yard and, 'Come on over, bring beer!'"

Now she and Randy live on a cul-de-sac where neighbors are a second family. Like her, many of them come from a country background. "It's been 20-some years, and it looks like I can handle Madison and Madison can handle me," Jahnke says. "They have found compassion in their heart for a redneck farm broadcaster."

The best at what she does

Once in Madison Jahnke quickly introduced herself to her sources and listeners. That included attending Wisconsin Farm Bureau meetings. At the time, a popular female sportscaster was calling herself the Sports Babe. One of the Farm Bureau members began introducing Jahnke as the "Fabulous Farm Babe," and it stuck.

"And now I can't get away from it," she says. "Nor would I ever want to. Because if I had to spend marketing dollars to build this brand I'd bankrupt Mid-West Family Broadcasting.... Now it's my website, my license plate. People can't remember my name, so it's the 'Farm Babe.'"

In addition to building a brand, Jahnke has earned wide respect from her peers. Nolan Anderson, a UW-Extension agent from Dane County, has worked with her since she moved to Madison. "Everyone who knows her knows she's the best at what she does," he says.

Last year Jahnke won the Farm Broadcaster of the Year award from the National Association of Farm Broadcasting. She also mentors aspiring farm broadcasters, speaks at colleges and invites anyone who's interested to shadow her. Mike Austin tells me that she has not only served as a role model, but her open, cooperative style has helped to make the profession more collegial.

Of approximately 160 farm broadcasters in the U.S., Jahnke guesses that 40% are women. But early in her career, she was part of a small minority. Not that it fazed her. She says guys in the business didn't treat her any differently than their male peers, or if they did, she was having too much fun to notice. It probably helped that she grew up on a farm with seven male cousins as her closest playmates.

"I was a tomboy as a kid. I'd rather drive tractor. I can't cook worth a squat. I was always outside. I'd rather be out with the cows."

Spinning stories

May milk's down eleven, 22.03 a hundred weight. Forty-pound block cheese down three at 2.25. No change on double-A butter.

On air, Jahnke speaks a language few others understand.

"I try to stay true to something my dad said, 'You better know what you're talking about because farmers smell bullshit a mile away.'"

She makes it her job to understand Wisconsin's agricultural products, soil types, market trends, farm technology and farmer anxieties. She won't speak with authority to audiences outside the state. She would be lost, she says, in a Kansas feedlot. And she would find it offensive if a broadcaster unfamiliar with Wisconsin agriculture tried to pass in her territory. "Don't come into my pool and pretend you're an expert."

But while farmers are her primary audience, she also wants to reach the lawyer in a suit or the harried mother picking up groceries after work. Jahnke prides herself on connecting producers with consumers. So, in addition to rattling off the day's market prices, she spins farm news into stories that everyone can relate to. Why would you care if the corn crop is planted late? Because, she explains, that means the crop will mature later, which means it will have less time to dry, which means farmers will use propane heaters to dry it, which means the price you pay for propane will increase.

International events factor in, too. During recent broadcasts she informed her audience that farmers in Ukraine had been hoarding their crop from last year and that Chinese are demanding butterfat. And she explained why those trends matter to anyone who eats. "All I ever ask from the time I walk into the office," she says, "is who gives a shit?"

Jahnke's network of sources includes international commodity brokers and high-level government officials, but she finds story ideas everywhere she goes. She stalks people in the grocery store.

"I watch how people shop. Where do you spend time? Where do you slow down? What do you give a damn about in that grocery store? What don't you understand about what you're looking at? Why isn't somebody like a farmer there to try to help you? What would a farmer say if they were walking with you through that store? What would you ask a farmer if you were standing in front of the meat showcase? Why is pork so bitching expensive all of a sudden?"

The answer, heard on Jahnke's broadcast: an incurable virus that is killing baby pigs.

Farmers and family

More than researching, writing or talking into the microphone, Jahnke loves meeting her audience. On Madison's first warm April day I tag along to an implement dealer's grand opening, where she plans to schmooze with listeners for an hour, then rouse the crowd from a small stage. Before I walk in the door, I hear her. Soon I spot her circled by a trio of goat farmers who looked slightly star-struck, yet entirely comfortable.

"Everyone who meets Jahnke thinks they're her best friend," says Bonnie Oleson, Jahnke's first intern and longtime colleague. "She just gets it. She knows how to talk to people. She can read a room and make them all comfortable. It doesn't matter if they're in overalls or suits."

Adds Tom Brand, executive director at National Association of Farm Broadcasters: "She can even get those kids at the county fair who typically answer questions with only 'yes' or 'no' to open up."

Jahnke peppers the goat farmers with questions. "What's the average size of your nannies? Do goats get milk fever?" Then she listens closely, making mental notes. As with loitering in the grocery store, shooting the breeze with her audience almost always leads to stories. When the conversation wraps up, the farmers welcome her to visit. "Don't be surprised to see my beat-up truck stop by!" she calls out.

Later, she speaks with an Amish farmer about his wheat crop ("Did you get any winter kill?") and garners another invitation. In fact, she talks with so many listeners -- some old friends, some new acquaintances -- that she has no time for her scheduled stage appearance.

Meanwhile, next to the table of brats, chips and potato salad, I speak with Jim Koltes, a retired farmer and tobacco buyer. One of Jahnke's first interviews took place in front of his garage near DeForest, and he has appeared on her show several times since then. "I couldn't begin to tell you the different things we've done and what we've been through," he says. "She's like a sister to me."

After bypass surgery in 2002, as he drifted in and out of consciousness, he says, "they put her on my headphones." He is scheduled for another surgery soon and says he hopes to wake to her voice again. "It's good to hear somebody familiar when you're in a situation like that."

What Koltes likes most about Jahnke is "her loud voice, for one thing. I can hear her good. She knows about farmers. Knows, of course, about my situation. Just always nice.... She'd make my day many days." All of his neighbors, he assures me, are also fans of hers.

A couple at the event, David and Phyllis, tell me they are going to tour Alaska with Jahnke in August. At 85, they still farm, and this will be their first vacation since 1973. They'll be joined by about 45 others, most farmers or retired farmers.

In addition to seeing glaciers, they will tour a musk-ox farm and visit the Alaska state fair. This is Jahnke's kind of vacation. She loves to travel, and while she's at it, she's collecting stories. "I see stories everywhere. And farm tours are the same way. In Florida, we saw citrus, beef production, hydroponic technology.... People who are in farming want to see those kinds of things."

David and Phyllis heard from people who had been on previous tours that one of the most enjoyable parts of the trip was spending time with Jahnke.

"Farmers all remind me of family," says Jahnke. "They all remind you of the uncle or the cousin or the neighbor you grew up with."

And while she has a giant family of fans, and is a favorite aunt to her nieces and nephew and even many colleagues' kids, Jahnke did not start a family of her own. "It never dawned on me," she says. "Never dawned on me. I was so enamored with what I was doing in this job."

No stomach for politics

Throughout Jahnke's decades of broadcasting, audience response to her show was most dramatic during the 2011 recall elections.

"I got sucked into a vortex where the rural vote really mattered," she says.

Former Gov. Tommy Thompson and Gov. Scott Walker spoke on her show before any Democrats. Their political advisers, she guesses, were first to recognize the value of reaching her audience. "And to be fair, Wisconsin agriculture has traditionally been a Republican-leaning faction," she says. "The fact that the Republican Party would want to come in and visit with my audience didn't shock me."

People in agriculture, she says, don't see things "like many in Madison, [who believe] it's one way or the other. We don't know what your political affiliation is at the farm gate. We work with everybody."

So Jahnke was surprised when Democratic listeners accused her of taking sides. "And all I could tell them was [Democrats] are welcome, tell them to come in." However, very few left-leaning guests accepted her offer.

Jahnke hints that maybe Democrats weren't only slower to act, but also less knowledgeable about rural issues. "The candidate's gotta be comfortable with the subject matter, because I'm not gonna pussyfoot around. You either know my audience or you're wasting my time and you're making yourself look bad. Because I gotta ask you questions, I gotta ask you what matters to my audience. And they can smell you."

During the run-up to the recall elections, Jahnke says, farm broadcasting colleagues from around the nation emailed her to ask how she was handling it. She answered, "I keep my head down. I have no stomach for politics."

If a controversial guest seeks her out, she says, she'll cover the story and also find a guest with an opposing view. But, she adds, "Will I go looking for you? No, that's for other talk shows to do. That ain't me."

Asked whether she ever takes a stand on an issue, Jahnke answers, "I suppose. It's more about how I live and what I do than Bible-thumping or podium-pounding."

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