Popularity of MPT show continues to grow

Staff Writer

OWINGS MILLS, Md. (Jan. 13, 2015) — The most popular show on Maryland Public Television, “Maryland Farm & Harvest,” a show about agriculture, was initially conceived as a one-off, a single hour-long show that would air and seek to counterbalance what frustrated farmers felt was a biased, statewide misunderstanding of poultry farming on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
State agriculture Secretary Earl “Buddy” Hance said he wasn’t sure. He said he worried that idea would turn into 60 minutes of narrative that would air a few times, build little momentum and disappear, probably without making much of an impact.
“I was concerned that you’re just doing one shot and doing one story. From my chair, there’s such tremendous diversity in Maryland agriculture, I countered back to them that let’s do a show that’s more than an hour,” the outgoing secretary said.
The show became a series, airing in late 2013, and has expanded along an unlikely track in roughly a year, including a second season, attracting about 1.4 million total viewers over nearly 30 episodes and two seasons, according to the agriculture department, while attracting attention as a potential model for similar shows about agriculture in states across the country, Hance said.
It’s achieved those things by packing each half-hour episode with impressively diverse and detailed reports about the industry on subjects ranging from urban farming in Baltimore and Iraq war veterans recovering on former farms to the ins and outs of apple orchards in western Maryland.
There are recipes and interviews with farm-to-market shop owners and even facile, surprisingly painless breakdowns of new agricultural technology and the science of farm bioreactors on the Eastern Shore.
“Most people don’t know where their food comes from,” said Mike English, a long-time executive producer with Maryland Public Television who oversees the show. “The show makes farmers into real people, and it makes the business of farming into something regular people can relate to. … We’re very careful to select stories where the people have to be interesting. … It’s sort of a hybrid: It’s not news, and it’s not documentary. Somewhere in between. Something that’s thoughtful.”
English also produced MPT’s Emmy-winning “Outdoors Maryland,” which was previously the network’s most popular show. He earned a similar reputation there for breaking down complex subject matter into diverse, informative and easily viewed segments stuffed into a half hour.
“We have to make everything easily digestible. Our audience is not farmers. It’s the average person flipping through the channels,” series producer Sarah Sampson said. “We want to present the issues, but we have to present them in a way that people come away with an understanding, and they’re not confused.
The program is made by a small group of producers, videographers, editors and broadcast journalists with a significant background in visual storytelling — with the exception of the show’s host, Joanne Clendining, a career actress with a farming background and one of the show’s popular draws, English said. She also won an Emmy this year for her work on the show.
“That’s big,” English said. “That’s not an easy thing to win. I think Joanne’s persona is part of the reason for the show’s success. … She’s very friendly and has a nice way about her. We get lots and lots of calls about her.”
When a crew from the show visits a farm to shoot a segment, they often spend up to eight hours, collecting footage and interviewing sources, Sampson said. Each episode probably requires at least 40 days in man-hours to make, English said. It’s viewed wherever Maryland Public Television is broadcast, including Maryland, southern Pennsylvania, part of Delaware and Virginia and Washington.
Each season of the show costs about $600,000, Hance said, paid for by a group of state agricultural organizations and foundations.
The Maryland Grain Producers Utilization Board, which initially wanted to make the hour-long show dedicated to the poultry industry, pays for about half of it, he said.
“We really had no idea of how many people would watch the show,” Hance said. “We were all very surprised. [More than a million people is] a pretty amazing statistic for a show right out of the box.”
Most of the show’s funders didn’t know it was supposed to last more than a season but found ways to support it when season two arrived. The Maryland Farm Bureau had suffered cuts to its primary budget, so it pulled together funding for the show from its for-profit service company, said Valerie Connelly, the Farm Bureau’s executive director.
“I think it’s been extremely effective,” she said of the show. “We’ve got nothing but positive comments back from our customers. I learn something in every segment I watch. Even if it involves a farm family I’ve known for years.”
Representatives for national farm organizations based in Washington have seen the show and loved it, Hance said, calling it the best agricultural show they’ve seen. English said it’s the only show he’s worked on that’s never gotten any negative feedback from anyone, including viewers. Except for one who requested they make the show an hour long, he said.
The show’s crew is busy wrapping up its second season. It’s most recent episode, which aired Jan. 13, featured a family that operates one of the state’s largest grain farms, a look at new tractor technology and the first in a four-part series on economics of grain farming.
“My thing is find the right stories and tell them in the right way,” he said. “The program really came to be because there’s a need and we’re filling the need. … We really want Marylanders to know what’s it’s like to be a farmer these days.”