Planting, Pastures, and . . . Podcasts?

March is National Agriculture Month. So what better way to celebrate than by featuring another podcast? Jeff sits down with Extension educator Monica Jean, who started her own agriculture podcast.

March 24, 2020

Image of Partnerships and Peninsulas title over a photo of a rainbow over a field.

Planting, Pastures, and . . . Podcasts?

Jeff Dwyer:
March is National Agriculture Month. What better way to celebrate on our podcast than by spotlighting another podcast? Late last fall, MSU Extension field crops educator Monica Jean gathered her colleagues and started a podcast called In The Weeds. So far, In The Weeds has featured a myriad of topics relevant to farmers in the agricultural community from sustainability to soybeans to stresses on the farm. Although In The Weeds is fairly new, it has already attracted a number of interesting guests and has been profiled in media outlets such as Growing America. I'm Jeff Dwyer, director of Michigan State University Extension and this is Partnerships and Peninsulas.

Intro: This is Partnerships and Peninsulas, and just like the State of Michigan, this podcast is filled with stories of amazing people who are doing wonderful work from Marquette to Monroe. Sit back and discover everything you didn't know about Michigan State University Extension. Here's your host, Jeff Dwyer.

Jeff Dwyer: Monica, thank you so much for joining me today.

Monica Jean: Thanks for having me, Jeff.

Jeff Dwyer: So to start with, can you talk about where the idea for starting your own agriculture podcast came from? We are in competition, you know.

Monica Jean: I would say it's because we tried to do an in-season program that's called Virtual Breakfast... and it was kind of having a little bit of an identity crisis because we wanted it to be interactive, but we also wanted it to be efficient. Those two things don't really go together very well sometimes when you're on these webinar platforms. So, I kind of had identified through that process that our team also puts on together that maybe a webinar on its own that could just give a little bit more background information, give our expertise, like our specialists more time to kind of discuss and have a conversation about those issues would be a better way. And then we let that Virtual Breakfast be a short, sweet and more interactive program.

Jeff Dwyer: That's terrific. So I'm just curious, when you decided to start this project, what were some of the things you had to learn about or teach yourself or, from my experience, get comfortable with about podcasting?

Monica Jean: Well, you may be surprised by this, but I'm very comfortable talking actually, so I didn't have to work on that part. I love to tell jokes and I don't know if you've ever been in a room with a bunch of farmers, but getting them to laugh sometimes is difficult, and I make it my, like, number one priority to at least get one laugh during a program. So I wrote a whole bunch of jokes already prepared. I was ready for that part. I think the hard thing was that I'm not a professional podcast person and even now I have things I know I can improve. So learning how to use all the equipment and the editing and the posting and how to do dotCMS computer work and all that was all new and so that took some time and there's still a learning curve. Yeah.

Jeff Dwyer: So one of the things that we think about, work on, talk about in Extension on literally a daily basis is how we can continually do a better job in communicating, getting people like you out in front of people and all of that, and I think one of the things we have learned is that radio and podcasting is often a particularly effective way to get information out to farmers because they are listening to the radio or they're listening to podcasts during their workday while they're driving in the fields and so on. Have you received that kind of feedback as well to In The Weeds?

Monica Jean: Yeah, I would say I'm still working on it so people don't know what they don't know. If I haven't gotten in front of them yet or they haven't somehow seen an advertisement, then they don't know about the podcast, right? I've heard from lots of my colleagues that they're trying to help spread the word. My mom's trying really hard. She constantly is telling people that I'm on this podcast. It's really funny listening to her try to explain how to download it. So I think that I'm still expanding. I of course would love more and more subscribers. But I told myself in the beginning if I got over 20 people to listen to it, I felt like it was worth it because we put a lot of time and investment even to single farm calls or to just hosting a meeting, which sometimes you'd only get 20 or 30 people at, which isn't a bad thing.

It's just our attendance at things can be varied, cause people are busy and they like to receive information now in so many different ways, and I felt like having the podcast, if it was over that amount, which it is, I'm happy to say I usually get about 80 at a minimum per, I've got several that are above 100, so I think it's successful in the amount of listeners I have. But I also am really happy to be offering another venue because maybe they weren't comfortable coming to those in-person meetings or this is just the way they prefer to receive their information. I'm really happy our team is offering a large array of those options.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, Monica Jean, I may have to let Ron Bates, your institute director, know that we might soon have CNN or MSNBC coming after you, so we'll have to be prepared. So maybe particularly over the last year and the challenges that farmers have faced, the challenges that the agricultural community in Michigan in general have faced, but frankly the challenges that you and our colleagues in MSU Extension have faced in trying to provide information and all of that. Why do you think it's so important that we don't just have episodic or once-a-year type of communication opportunities, but that we're communicating not only regularly but on many different platforms?

Monica Jean: Well, farming is a 24-hour, 365-days-a-week type of job, and so I know I can't work that much. I try sometimes. My husband thinks I'm crazy, so I've had to work on that. I grew up on a farm and my family still farms, and I understand the type of work it requires and that they can’t always leave. Farming is just stressful, period. I talked to our farm stress people about this all the time. It is particularly stressful. I mean, 2019 was rough. I think one of the reasons I pick certain topics because if you get on, you may notice there's like a lot of stuff about sustainability, risk management. I really view these topics about sustainability, soil health, water quality as risk management issues that if we don't start addressing them better, I'm not saying there aren't farms addressing them now, that they won't be in business and I don't want to see any of my farmers not in business anymore.

So from that place I just try to make sure they're getting this information that is more nuanced. It's hard to talk about what the biology of your soil is doing and to explain because sometimes we don't even fully understand. We just know strip tillage is better than regular tillage or this, it can be really hard because we're still trying to figure out what the environment is doing.

But we do know it brings resiliency on the farm and I do know that I had farmers that were able to drive across their fields even after all that water when they had used more of those sustainability practices. So I know it makes a difference in the long-term for their farm. So that's where I guess I try to discuss those issues on there. But we have talked about farm stress, we've talked about a lot of topics and I think it's great that that platform allows me to do that. I can address what's going on right now too, so...

Jeff Dwyer: I couldn't agree more with all of that, Monica Jean. I think that one of the things we've learned in Extension is that the very regular communication in a variety of ways is important, not just for us to convey information, but because we're learning every day from those that we work with, especially in agriculture, but I would argue that that's true in other areas as well. So I think it's that dynamic, the dynamic nature of the communication. I think that goes all the way back to why it's so important that we're embedded in these communities. I mean, the people that you work with, you work with because it's your job, but some of them are also your neighbors.

Monica Jean: My family.

Jeff Dwyer: Your family, but even if you don't know them personally, you share an affinity because of your background in farming and all of that and I think that's very important. So I'm going to ask maybe a bit of a different question and that is, so one of the other impressive aspects of your podcast beyond the variety of topics you've covered is the variety of guests that you've been able to talk to and bring onto the podcast. Can you tell me about one or two of your favorite conversations?

Monica Jean: I got to remember, the first one I did was with Angie Setzer is her name, and we seem to have quite a kinship. We're both a little full of it and that was just a really fun conversation. But also I learned a lot. I learned a lot on a lot of these actually. A lot of times I'm not the guest. I have another educator come with me that it's more of their expertise area because I just don't have the wealth of knowledge that they do to maybe pull some more questions out of the other guests we've brought along.

Sometimes I just get to sit back, track the questions, make sure we're not getting boring, those are important parts. But also I learn a lot, so I enjoy that. Angie's conversation about marketing and how marketing is changing for our farms and also for our grain elevators? I enjoyed that very much.

I've liked every single one that I've done! Just for different reasons, I guess. It's so hard to pick and some of them that I have recorded and edited, but they're not even posted yet. I think there's great things about to come, too. So I always really appreciate when the farmers are willing to be interviewed, and those are probably my favorite. Because I learn a lot from them and they're just so full of wealth of knowledge and I appreciate when they take the time to do that. Especially, we did have one about farm stress.

I grew up around Abe, actually. He was the Farm Bureau president and gave me scholarships to go to college. So that worked out. I told him that scholarship program works, and him taking the time and talking about such a sensitive, maybe difficult, topic knowing it's going to get posted and shared and everything, I just, I really appreciated that. So anytime any of my farmers -- or sometimes I have some Canadian farmers that got interviewed, actually I'll be posting soon about cover crops --  any of them I really appreciate when they're willing to do something like this.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, thank you for that response to my unexpected question, but I think it also points out what you and I know is that the people we work with are just remarkable people. I tell people sometimes that I think we don't realize, for example, that on a dairy farm, it's not just a dairy farm in the classic sense, but it's also a cutting-edge wastewater treatment facility. It's also at the leading edge of applied genetics. You and I could go on down the list of the expertise and the training and experience it takes to be a successful farmer in a variety of areas. And I think that's one of the things you and I get to enjoy from doing these podcasts.

So, what do you hope In The Weeds will look like a year from now?

Monica Jean: Oh, still running because it means I have a job. I'm just kidding. I'm still trying to figure it out as far as topics. You might get on sometimes and think, "Wow, there's a lot, maybe Monica has a hard time sticking to one thing or the other." I like it like that though, because farming is kind of like that. They have so many things they have to consider and look at and have an expertise on. It's not just a general overview. They actually have to understand and apply. So I'm always looking to improve it. I hope to have even more guests on. More listeners would be nice, I guess. I'll go with that. That's the easy one. In a year, I'd love more and more listeners.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, I'll tell you what, I'm going to put a goal out there because I'm going to help do a better job of publicizing. So how about if we shoot for an average of 500 listeners a year from now?

Monica Jean: That would be great.

Jeff Dwyer: Terrific. Well, Monica, thank you so much for joining me today. We appreciate this opportunity to learn more about In The Weeds, the podcast you've undertaken, and we can't wait to see your listenership grow.

You can listen to the MSU Extension field crops team's podcast In The Weeds, as well as Partnerships and Peninsulas on Spotify, Apple podcasts, and on the MSU Extension website at This is Partnerships and Peninsulas. My name is Jeff Dwyer and I have the privilege of being the director of Michigan State University Extension.