Rob and Emily Sharkey create their own tailwind
By Jim Nowlan
Rob and Emily Sharkey, of east of Bradford, have been serial entrepreneurs on the farm, of necessity. They nearly went broke in hogs years ago, clawed their way back, paid off all their debts and are now riding a wave of success with, of all things, weekly podcasts to many thousands of farmers across North America.
In their early 40s, Rob and Emily—they are a real team—still produce corn and beans on the Sharkey Family place as well as on rented ground. But each year Sharkey Outfitters also hosts up to 40 hunters for a week each in the lodge across the drive from their home.
The latest, and even more promising venture, is Shark Farmer (sharkfarmer.com), a weekly audio podcast of up to an hour in which host Rob goes beneath the surface of farming to talk about the emotional struggles, challenges and successes of farmers in the US and Canada.
One guest from Montana told Rob and his listeners—for the first time ever, to anyone, even her husband—about the abuse she had suffered at her former spouse’s hands and how she wanted to make sure her three daughters got away.
Another episode recounts the struggles of a homophobic farmer whose son was gay. Another recounts how farmers in Texas are handling the aftermath of the big flood.
After just 18 months of beaming his strong voice out to the world, “Podcasting is now our main income,” says Rob, who is as surprised as anyone at his success.
“I’m still in a fog,” the bearded Sharkey says, as I interview him from the cab of his Big Green combine, while he harvests corn, this past week. His fulltime hired man, Dan Peterson, of Kewanee, trails alongside with the auger wagon.
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A lady hunter put Rob onto podcasting
Rob didn’t invent this idea on his own.
Rob had an opening at his outfitters lodge a couple of years ago, so he hosted a female Carrie Zylka, who podcasts to hunters about their sport. A lightbulb went on in Rob’s head.
All it takes to podcast is a laptop and a microphone, Rob tells me, so soon he was podcasting about the lives of his guests, about half of whom have been women, digging into their innermost thoughts.
“I am not your typical farm broadcaster,” explains Rob, “who gives you the markets and then talks about a farm operation. I’m not interested in interviewing the president of the AFBF (national Farm Bureau). He can get on any shows he wants.” And you’ll hear what you expect the president of a farm organization to say.
“Farmers are becoming a bit isolated,” the self-confident Sharkey adds, as we look across his fields, hardly another farmhouse in sight on the horizon. “They want to hear about what other farmers are facing in agriculture, a world changing faster than anyone can absorb.”
Advertisers love his show
“I almost hate to say it to a newspaper man like you,” Rob goes on, the indicators above him in the cab registering a substantial 200+ bushels an acre, “but I have never had to go out to look for an advertiser.” As word spread about his popular podcast, they have come to Rob, like BASF, the big chemical company, and Farmers’ Edge, a Canadian digital imagery company.
Big ag companies are no longer interested in advertising to everyone, when they tell Rob that they are hunting for the 40,000—just 40,000—farmers across North America who buy most of their products and services.
They are into market-targeting, even micro-targeting, finding as many of that 40,000 as they can.
And Rob reaches a big swath of them, apparently.
BASF even put Rob on a 13-state marketing tour this summer, a camera crew along, to talk farming with farmers who are into social media like podcasts.
“The one big thing I learned,” recalls Rob, “is how little I know about farming in North America. I didn’t know anything about all the irrigation they do west of us.”
This winter—winter mind you—he is to do something similar in Canada!
Rob doesn’t “break” for commercials. He just slips them in as part of his conversation. When I listened to a podcast, I didn’t even realize until later that, gosh, that was for an advertiser.
Rob wouldn’t tell me the exact number who listen to his podcasts each week, other than: “My goal was 10,000 in the first year, and I have well surpassed that.”
One big marketing tool for Rob is his Twitter presence. He has 12,000+ followers on Twitter.
“That is my niche,” says Rob, who is on Twitter “too much” each day. “Twitter is an aggressive medium. You have to be quick, sharp and sometimes biting.”
I have only listened to a couple of Rob’s podcasts; it’s not my thing. But I can tell he has fun with his guests and is willing to get under their skin when he wants.
Rob has a comfortable, not quite “aw-shucks” style; he’s more “with it” than that.
He prepares questions in advance for guests to think about, but that’s about all his preparation for his weekly podcasts.
Rob does Shark Farmer on Tuesdays and recently has begun a second podcast, The Farmer and the City Girl, with Lesley Kelly, a Canadian, which they create each Monday.
Their aim is to get a better understanding of agriculture out to an audience in town.
Rob guesses he spends about 10 hours a week on his podcasts. Not bad, as he is making money on it, though Rob won’t say how much.
Indeed, Rob has expanded his operation into a network of ag podcasters (Farmruralag.com)!
He and two other farm podcasters have just hired a Canadian woman to run their growing broadcasting enterprise fulltime, inasmuch as these farmers have busy day jobs.
They are soon going to be in video blogs as well.
What is it about podcasting?
Rob explains that a podcast can be listened to anywhere, anytime.
“It’s kind of like gathering at the office water cooler,” he says, “or at the coffeeshop, talking with people who share a lot, in business or sports or life. It’s like the Golf Channel, not looking to reach everyone, just those many who share your interests.”
I checked in my newspaper office and the ladies said, yes, they and their children do indeed listen to podcasts. Of course, they don’t listen to the same ones, but ones that appeal to them and their interests, respectively.
Quite a gig Rob has going!
A Bradford High grad, Rob followed his love Emily to Southern Illinois University, where he studied agriculture. They have four children: William, 18; Anita, 16; Eian, 12, and Steven, 8.
Emily has home-schooled the youngsters up to high school. William is now off to college in Ohio, where he is learning to become a highly skilled mechanic. I wonder why more young people don’t follow his lead.