Life in the slow lane: what are farmers listening to?

Hours and hours and hours.

Alone.

That’s a common situation for farmers for weeks and often months a year as they seed, spray, swath, combine and drive truck on and off the farm.

So what do farmers listen to? Do they listen to anything in the cab? How is what they’re listening to today different from what they listened to when younger, or to what their fathers listened to?

That’s what I was wondering recently during a lengthy road trip — something that is also a common occurrence for my job as an agricultural journalist. As I travel to distant farms and farm meetings, I listen to a lot of podcasts, audio books, radio, and — if I have a rental car — satellite radio.

Is this what farmers listen to, I wondered?

So I took to social media and asked.

I got lots of responses with certain character types appearing. Here’s what I found:

Some farmers often don’t want to hear people chattering or playing music, beyond what their ma-chines are making.

“I listen to the roar of an N14 Cummins as I haul grain. Music to my ears,” tweeted Andrew Dalgarno of Newdale, Man.

Fellow Manitoban Walter Moebis remembers his father enjoying the same connection of sound to farming action.

“Never had a radio in anything. Mind was busy on what he was doing and the farm/life, I guess,” he said.

Podcasts, as I suspected, have caught on big time. They are the main things I listen to as I travel, being easier to concentrate on than audio books and also freer, as in being totally free.

“Lots of podcasts,” said Brady Sprout, a Kipling, Sask., farmer.

Some farmers listen to farm and agriculture-related podcasts, but many want to be carried away by a gripping story or mystery.

“I listen to a lot of storytelling podcasts,” said Gerrid Gust, a farm leader from Davidson, Sask., who spends a lot of time trucking grain to buyers.

Snap Judgment, Planet Money, Freakonomics and the Moth Radio Hour are all examples he can spit out without thinking about it when I called him up to chat.

Gerrid and I have swapped podcast recommendations over the past couple of years, and that seems to be how many of us find new podcasts. It’s a natural networking of like-minded people.

“I forget how I find most of them,” he said. “It’s hard to remember where the idea came from.”

Some of the most dedicated podcast listeners can’t imagine listening to radio these days.

Danny Ottenbreit of Grayson, Sask., listens to a lot of podcasts, and for him “terrestrial radio can be parked in the bush and left to rust.”

However, there are some for whom radio is not an anachronistic technology.

I was surprised, and cheered, to hear that radio — live, unstreamed, unpodcasted AM and FM — is still a major farmer mainstay in the cab. Farmers almost all grew up with farm and rural radio, and for many, it is still good, relevant and engaging.

“1570 CKDM. Up here it’s 880 out of Brandon. I listen to all three radio stations out of Brandon to keep my voice in top shape,” said Eric Todd McLean.

Radio is a medium that brings up a lot of memories, I found.

“Back in the day, Dad listened to whatever came in clear, usually CBC or the local country stations,” remembered central Alberta farmer Stuart Somerville. “I used to listen to phone-in shows, but they just leave me mad now.”

Annoyance with some forms of radio broadcasting came up a few times. Farmers now have the ability, with all the other forms of audio, to be more selective than just chained to whatever is on the schedule.

“It was 840 CFCW 24/7 growing up,” said John Guelly of Westlock, Alta. “The big 7-9er. Now only for noon farm show and sometimes news.”

Southeastern Manitoba farmer Jason Rempel remembers non-agriculture broadcasting he could hear on his farm.

“CBC 990 when equipment had AM only. CJOB during Bomber games. Great memories of listening to CBC Ideas with Dad in (the) field,” said Rempel.

Satellite radio is popular with some farmers who have equipped it. A huge range of choices is available from outer space with sports being one named by a few.

Satellite radio bridges the shortcomings of local radio and the modern age of hyper-connectivity, but for many, land-based radio is just fine and doesn’t seem outdated. Some farmers could remember an even more dated and seemingly anachronistic technology than radio.

“Yep, my older sister met her future husband on the CB back in the late ‘70s,” said John Kowalchuk of Trochu, Alta.

Ahhh, doesn’t that bring back the memories? CB radios. I realize that many farmers today still have a CB in their truck or other cabs, but for me, CBs will always be associated with the 1970s, Smoky and the Bandit and a guy at my elementary school called Joey Topuschak, who operated one in Grade 7.

Two-way radio was often a relief to just sitting in a vehicle and hearing whatever the local radio station was saying. It’s not as big a deal today, but that’s what we have Twitter and Facebook for, isn’t it? But you can’t use those while rolling.

From all the answers I got, I found a picture of farmers today having a lot of choice about what they hear while they’re working.

A heck of a lot of audio technology has changed since the early days, but one thing has definitely not changed: farmers spend hundreds of hours alone, and most want to hear something engaging. That’s a crucial piece of farm culture, and it’s unlikely to ever change.

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