Rob Sharkey knows a thing or two about life’s challenges.

As a beginning farmer who re­solved to take a chance on raising hogs in the late 1990s, Sharkey found quickly that he’d picked the wrong part of the decade to make that move.

“I’m a fifth-generation farmer from Bradford, Illinois,” Sharkey said. “Dad was a hog farmer …that’s what I know. I bought a bunch of feeder pigs; I rented a bunch of buildings.”

It turns out, the hog market quickly tanked amid record low prices.

“Basically, I lost everything,” Sharkey said. “I know how to raise hogs, but I wasn’t smart enough to forward price them, so everything came due the fall of ’98 and it was brutal. Just to get the hogs to market, I was paying the trucker more than the hogs were worth.”

With operating funds wiped out and credit cards at their limit, Rob and his wife, Emily, trudged into the local bank, where they were advised to declare bankruptcy, move on from farming and get “real” jobs. “You had your one shot, you failed, you’re done,” recommended the banker. 

Talk about a gut punch, Sharkey said. 

But that next morning they decided “nope” … they weren’t taking that route. 

“It took seven years to pay off that debt,” Sharkey said. “At one point, we had eight separate businesses we were running out of the house.

“I was pressure washing hog buildings, fabricating bins, literally doing everything I could just to get money to feed my family plus pay $10, $20, $50 a month to the people we owed a huge debt.”

Today, many fans may know Sharkey from his social media, radio, podcast, television and digital presence as The Shark Farmer, a grain farmer who tackles controversial agricultural topics and the struggles of modern farmers or business owners.

It was his and Emily’s early challenges that shaped what was to come, and Sharkey said he isn’t afraid to share how those struggles helped define and grow their future, bolstered by a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality.

At the Iowa Farm Bureau’s Acres of Opportunity conference in Ames last month, Sharkey applauded Iowa farmers for taking risks as they map their own plans in alternative and niche farming, something he said he wished he had the courage to dive into when younger.

Ag media venture

Sharkey’s love of deer hunting was the catalyst to help pull him and Emily out of debt. 

Blessed with an overabundance of quality hunting acres in southern Illinois, he unveiled a deer outfitting enterprise, now in its 24th year, that took off with the help of four Virginia hunters who spread the word.

“This is the reason I’m still farming,” Sharkey said. “This is the one that pulled us through all of that debt from the hog crash.”

With the emergence of Twitter and social media, The Shark Farmer was born. Sharkey’s sarcastic messages while babysitting a generator during a week-long power outage helped him gain al­most instant popularity before “trending” was a thing.

“I went from like 500 followers to 10,000 followers in the matter of a week,” Sharkey said. It was an “aha” moment. “(Social media) has a tremendous amount of power,” he said.

Next came podcasts, which were relatively new at the time. Sharkey opted to share farmer stories that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the markets, weather or a product pitch.

He focused on real stories of farm safety, mental health and the struggles of those in the agriculture. The podcasts gained an enormous following.

“Some people (in the industry) didn’t like this at the time,” he said. “They said we don’t talk about this in agriculture — feelings, mental health or struggles. But that told us we were onto something good. People do want to hear these stories.”

For Rob, deep discussions with farmers remains the icing on the cake. 

Man-on-the-street interviews can also be humorous — for example, he asked someone in Nashville what’s housed in a grain bin and they answered “milk” — but show just how far people are removed from where their food comes from.

“People are very interested in what we do,” he said. “We just need mediums where we can tell them.”

Take risks

Sharkey challenged farmers to take risks and follow their dreams. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake, he said. Once, he accidentally planted corn at a soybean population of 144,000 plants per acre. “That’s not a good way to grow corn,” he said.

Unbelievably, that area of the field yielded more than 300 bushels per acre that year. 

“I was embarrassed and made fun of,” but it offered the opportunity to investigate how that happened without the corn falling down and the field turning to weeds.

“It would be a shame to not realize your dreams because you were like me and had too much pride,” he said. “I have failed so many times in my life, but I’m not a failure. There are a lot of struggles in agriculture ... but you can be successful.”