Wisconsin farmers exude passion for animals, land, neighbors

Ray Mueller
Pam Jahnke, farm director for Wisconsin Farm Report Radio, was the guest speaker at the Rural Life Day sponsored by the Green Bay Catholic diocese.

BRILLION – What stands out as being special about Wisconsin's farmers — a trait that's recognized across the country and around the world?

It's the passion that the state's farmers have for their animals, land, and neighbors, according to Pam Jahnke, who's well known for her three decades of farm news broadcasting on radio and television.

Jahnke was the guest speaker at the annual Rural Life Day sponsored by the Green Bay Catholic diocese at Holy Family parish here. In pointing to the passion for agriculture, she cited visitors from China who came to the state because they recognized that trait.

“You can't teach passion,” Jahnke remarked. She said the Chinese were impressed with how exhibitors were “playing with cows” at the annual World Dairy Expo in Madison.

More sharing needed

Despite having that passion, Jahnke is convinced that the state's farmers are falling short in sharing their history and current contributions not only with the consumers who are an average of four generations without having a direct connection with farm life, but also with today's much smaller group of young farmers who are facing severe economic challenges at the moment.

“Share your story in church, at the store, and at the mailbox,” Jahnke implored them. It's necessary both to educate consumers and to tell today's younger farmers that previous generations of farmers faced greater troubles than are in place today, she said.

Supermarket 'wall of milk'

As an example, Jahnke cited the “wall of milk” that greets customers in the back of supermarkets. The array of choices, labeling differences, and various claims leaves consumers confused with no one available to advise them, she indicated.

On that point, Jahnke questioned the claims that one choice of milk is better than another one. Contrary to some promotions, she said that the choice carrying the highest prices should not be considered to be the best among them. “And who milked an almond?” she asked in reference to what is presented as being “milk” in the market today.

Jahnke stated that she often stands in grocery stores in Madison just to watch the shoppers — many of whom are professional women with young children in tow. She suggested that they are primary candidates for needing to be informed about what they're about to buy.

Instant info era

Another type of problem facing farmers is the difficulty of conveying the timetables involving the raising of cattle, the changing of the seasons, and the patience required for agricultural production in an era when the public demands and expects “instant information,” Jahnke observed.

Despite her lifetime in the media, Jahnke admitted that she's at a loss on how to solve that challenge. “Tell me how to do that,” she asked her audience.

Jahnke also decried the “control freaks” who are trying, with some success, to tell farmers what kind of production methods they should use or how to manage their animals. She also questioned the anti-GMO (genetically modified organism) movement, suggesting that everyone interested in the topic watch the “Food Evolution” documentary.

Career progression

In her presentation, Jahnke traced how she progressed from growing up as a “country kid” on her family's 40-cow dairy farm in Oconto County to being an agricultural media professional in Madison since 1990.

Jahnke had a life-changing experience at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls, where she enrolled with the intention of being an agricultural attorney. In the early 1980s, the economic crisis in agriculture led to the departure of many students from farms who had enrolled at the university, she recalled.

Her life took a turn toward journalism and broadcasting when a professor noted Jahnke's tendency to be “a talker,” leading to a stint as a disc jockey for jazz at a local radio station. After breaking into farm news broadcasting, Jahnke accepted a position with a radio station in Madison in 1990.

For a few years, this resulted in a distant marriage — a challenge solved when her husband obtained a transfer to the Madison area, Jahnke pointed out. Over the years, Jahnke was able to get 23 radio outlets in the state and the CBS TV station in Madison to carry her multiple daily farm news broadcasts — one of which she prepared while in Brillion shortly before her presentation.

Wisconsin features and charms

Even though Madison is in Wisconsin, Jahnke quickly learned that much of what's second nature in state's agricultural and rural communities is not familiar to the crowd in the state's capital.

In addition to what's directly pertinent to farming, Jahnke said the cultural gaps also apply to the Friday night fish fry, the Old Fashioned cocktail, the “smelt run,” and certainly the excitement of the start of a new growing and cropping season.

Through the many contacts in her professional career, Jahnke has also become aware that “the passion” which applies to farmers in Wisconsin does not exist at the same level anywhere else.

Jahnke pointed out what has gradually been lost over the years: it's the ability, especially on smaller farms, to find someone in the community to fill in for part of the day to milk the cows and handle other daily chores, to have high school boys handle hay bales as a body building technique heading into the football season, and to be able to fix equipment, at least temporarily, with duct tape or baling twine.

Religious perspective

The religious perspective of the diocese's Rural Life Day was illustrated with the songs, readings, special prayers, and blessings at the Mass which started the day's activities. The chief celebrant of the Mass was the Most Reverend Robert Morneau, an auxiliary bishop emeritus of the Green Bay diocese.

In his homily, Morneau called on the attendees to realize how they, as farmers, have been entrusted with the treasure of the land as a gift from God and urged them to be good stewards of that gift.

“Be grateful for what you have been given to care for,” Morneau advised. He cited the Biblical symbol of the vine and branches and referred to the intertwining of the spiritual, social, economic, and political in one's life.