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Minnesota Soybean Business

Reliable sources: Red River Farm Network marks 25 years on the air

January-February 2021

The Red River Farm Network didn’t start with an idea from a radio executive in the backroom of a posh metropolitan studio. Nope. The outline for a network serving northwest Minnesota agriculture was first sketched on a napkin in an East Grand Forks diner in 1995 and finalized with a handshake and a vision to spread farm news.

“We all shared a dream,” said Red River co-founder Mike Hergert, who launched the network alongside colleagues John Vasichek and Jerry Fiskum, with an investment from the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers. “We put our heads together and thought, ‘You know, maybe we ought to start this network.’”

In December, the Red River Farm Network celebrated its 25th anniversary. Over that time, it has become one of agriculture’s most dependable and respected news outlets.

“Our tagline is ‘Reporting Agriculture’s Business,’ and we like to think of ourselves as the Wall Street Journal of agriculture,” said RRFN President Don Wick. “We provide hard news – we’re not big on the warm fuzzy stuff. We’re focused on, ‘How do we make more profit for that farmer?’”

Hergert said RRFN’s guiding mission has remained steady over a quarter century: Share agriculture news without bias or bluster.

“We’re old school,” he said. “We try to give the facts as we can find them and let the listener form their own opinion.”

In the beginning

Although he grew up on a farm in St. Peter, Hergert wanted to be a sportscaster, not a agriculture  broadcaster. Still, he worked at radio stations throughout Minnesota before moving to Grand Forks, N.D., in 1986. While delivering farm news at KKXL, he met his future RRFN partners. Knowing he lived in one of the country’s top agriculture regions, Hergert thought the area needed programming devoted exclusively to agriculture.

“The Red River Valley was recognized as a real breadbasket for ag,” he said. “I shared that idea with John and Jerry and thought if we could start a network with the name ‘Red River Farm Network,’ it would have some sales potential.”

After a couple of meetings, the business plan was outlined on the diner napkin and the Red River team put the dream to work. They found a studio in an old hospital building in Grand Forks, and hoped to find six regional stations to carry RRFN’s programming. Vasichek was able to secure a dozen stations to carry the first broadcast, along with an investment from the Wheat Growers. On Dec. 4, 1995, RRFN hit the airwaves. Hergert was its lone broadcaster.

“We thought we could make it long enough until the advertising sales started to come in, and luckily we did,” Hergert said. “We survived.”

Having support from Dave Torgerson and the Wheat Growers was invaluable at the time, Hergert said. Looking back on the partnership, Torgerson applauded RRFN for “doing it the right way – not the easy way or the quick way.”

Red River Farm Network covers parts of northwest Minnesota, eastern North Dakota and northeast South Dakota.

Though not every endeavor was perfect, RRFN made its name by under promising and overdelivering.

“You always make mistakes, but I don’t think we ever promised anything we couldn’t deliver,” Hergert said. “We’re pretty honest, you know?”

Building trust

Don Wick also came to the Red River Valley with a wealth of radio experience. He completed an eight-year stint at WCCO before growing tired of the corporate radio structure. He moved north in 2003 and became an RRFN minority partner.

“Up here, we control our own destiny,” said Wick, who grew up on a dairy farm in western Wisconsin, “and all the people who owned the company were just down the hall.”

He quickly bought into RRFN’s family atmosphere and knew he found the right fit.

“We had our own little team. If we saw a good idea, we did it,” he said. “I followed what Mike and the other guys were doing, and we made things happen.”

Don Wick speaks following his induction to the Farm Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 2018.

Since Hergert’s retirement in 2017, Red River Farm Network has grown to six broadcasters. RRFN’s listenership now covers northwest Minnesota, eastern North Dakota and northeast South Dakota. The region’s crop diversity has also expanded. When the network started 25 years ago, wheat was the dominant commodity. Not so anymore.

“When I came here it was just the start of soybeans making their foothold here,” Wick said. “It’s exploded since that time. We’re just blessed to have the most productive and progressive farmers right here. They find a way to make things work.”

Recently, Wick studied the production acreage of his listening area. He found that if borders were put around RRFN’s reach, it would be the country’s third largest soybean-producing state.

“Soybeans are a big deal here,” Wick said.

Wick can recite from memory a list of northern Minnesota farmer-leaders who have led the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council: Jamie Beyer, Mike Skaug, Jim Kukowski, Theresia Gillie, Patrick O’Leary and Kris Folland, to name a few.

“We’ve had some tremendous leaders come out of this region,” he said. “We try to target that active and engaged producer, and part of that is having a role in policy and also give something back on the checkoff side.”

Working in unison with commodity groups has been instrumental to RRFN’s success, Wick said.

“It’s important to have that connection with the grower leaders and staff,” he said. “It’s all about trust – we trust them and they trust us, and we work together to tell the story and get the message out.”

‘Big business’

Wick rises at 3 a.m. each morning, and gathers his team for a production meeting to discuss filling the day’s 90 minutes of agriculture programming. The RRFN team keeps the topics focused on what’s relevant to producers: trade and policy updates, market news, weather, water quality issues, etc.

“Farmers appreciate that. These farmers work with more dollars and cents than what we see on Main Street,” Wick said. “It’s a big business and we treat it that way.”

The network prides itself on not making its broadcasters part of the story. Playing it straight builds credibility among listeners, Wick said.

“We’re journalists, so we talk to all sides, all perspectives,” he said. “We’re not talk radio; we’re here to present the facts and talk to the newsmaker.”

In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic changed how RRFN does business. Yet, by keeping it simple and focusing on what they do best, Wick and his team find ways to continue connecting with listeners in a media landscape shifting toward social media and virtual interactions. Its e-newsletter, which Wick brought with him from WCCO, remains required reading in Minnesota’s ag community.

“Red River Farm Network is still the easiest and quickest way to stay in touch with all of the topics in agriculture,” said Hergert, who still lives in Grand Forks. “The way we communicate may change, but we’re always going to find a way to communicate to farmers.”

Twenty-five years after an agreement was scribbled on a napkin, RRFN has grown into an agriculture institution that continues relaying news that matters to farmers. Opportunity met preparation.

“We were lucky,” Hergert said. “But you know, the old saying: ‘The harder you work, the luckier you get.’”

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