70 Years Later, ‘Backyard Farmer’ Remains a Hardy Perennial in Nebraska Life | Nebraska today
Each spring, the annual return of “Backyard Farmer” to the airwaves is as eagerly awaited as the return of sandhill cranes to the waters of Central Platte. The show is a shared experience in Nebraska for generations, with practical lawn and gardening tips laced with lighthearted fun. This year, she celebrates her 70th birthday.
The broadcast, produced by Nebraska Extension and Nebraska Public Media, now retains the same basic format as when, on August 3, 1953, grainy images of University of Nebraska faculty members appeared in the Lincoln area. TV screens when the show first aired.
In the familiar setup, a host asks viewers questions to a group of four specialists, usually from Nebraska Extension, in entomology, horticulture, plant pathology, turf and weeds.
Viewer questions unsurprisingly run the gamut: Can I treat this mold growing on my tomato plants? How can I thicken the grass in those thin places in my yard? Any suggestions on how I could save this visibly stressed tree? What can I do to stop outside critters from continuing to nibble on my vegetables?
The program, which has long been characterized as the longest running locally produced program in the nation, will be saluted statewide in April with a proclamation from the governor declaring Backyard Farmers Week.
The show is scripted to move forward and end on time, but that still leaves plenty of room for panelist interactions and some unpredictability. This down-to-earth aspect has long been tied to viewers, as the science element blends with the human element, said Kim Todd, the program’s host since 2004.
“The fact that we make mistakes, forget to say something, mispronounce words, speak with our hands, and refer to off-air and personal experiences to illustrate our point makes us very human,” said Todd, associate professor of agronomy and horticulture and extension landscape specialist. “And since we rotate the panelists, these interactions and comments change every week. Our viewers make a personal connection with us just by watching the show, and when we meet and greet at live events, they don’t see anyone different – even if some of us are a little more smaller in person than when we’re sitting in the studio.
That sense of connection extends to viewers across the country, noted John Cariotto, a master gardener at Lincoln who coordinates care for the “Backyard Farmer” garden and lawn garden on East Campus. He is also one of the volunteers who takes phone calls from viewers during the show.
“‘Backyard Farmer’ is on the air, but it’s also on the internet,” he said, “so people around the world can watch ‘Backyard Farmer.’ viewing, which includes people from South Dakota, Iowa, Kansas, and even Colorado and Wyoming.
But he also received calls from well outside the Midwest.
“I’ve talked to people from Georgia and other places down south,” he said. “Thus, the impact of ‘Backyard Farmer’ extends well beyond Nebraska’s state lines. And I imagine there are people who know Kim Todd and Roch (Gaussoin) and Dennis (Ferraro) and Sarah (Browning) and all those people who are on the air.
Along with its relatable appeal, “Backyard Farmer” offers important practical advice, say Nebraska residents who have participated in Nebraska Extension’s Master Gardener program.
“As a master gardener, the information I glean from the show further reinforces what I have learned,” said Gering resident Elaine Pile. “The show gives easily understandable material to all viewers, whether beginners or seasoned gardeners. The presenters are aware of Nebraska’s varied climate and growing conditions, which is extremely important to viewers when asking questions.
The information presented by the panelists, she said, “is trustworthy and unbiased.”
Jo Bek, a master gardener at Curtis, sounded a similar theme.
“I’ve always been struck by the panelists’ ability to convey the science while allowing a layman to understand what they’re talking about,” she said. “They are also able to give instructions that will not be costly for the gardener to implement. Any research done by the university is also explained and shown how to best implement it.
“Backyard Farmer” started on KFOR–TV (now COLON/KGIN), in the basement of the temple building on the city campus. In 1955, the program moved to Nebraska Educational Television Channel 12. Key figures in the program’s early launch were George Round, the program’s longtime college relations director and host, and producer Jack McBride, a Nebraska public television pioneer. .
The inaugural broadcast in August 1953 featured the kind of relaxed banter that quickly became a familiar part of the show, as Round joked right away with horticulturist Wayne Whitney. Whitney, who would appear on the show until 1976, has long stood out as a colorful character, mixing serious advice with ironic commentary, and writing and drawing on a board to accompany panelists’ explanations. Viewers have come to know his oft-used phrase that plants need “tender and loving care.”
Gardeners should appreciate the nutritional value of manure, Whitley often noted. After a viewer called in and said a cow ate all the foliage off her favorite bush, Whitney shared her advice: Turn the cow over.
The human element has long provided a lasting bond with viewers. During a 1987 live broadcast at the Nebraska State Fair, plant pathologist David Wysong sampled hot peppers and found that one contained super heat that almost caused it to melt on air . On the same show, horticulturist Don Steinegger explained how to judge if a watermelon is ripe. He didn’t like the beating method.
Entomologist Fred Baxendale loved bringing insects to the program and showing them. Small creatures, he regularly noted, are “part of the wondrous pageantry of nature.”
“They’re one of the good guys,” he said on a show, referring to a caterpillar-hunting beetle. On another occasion, a yellow vest poked his thumb off camera and he had to answer a question on air as his eyes watered. Another time, he brought in a large group of squash bugs that started crawling all over the panelists’ desks, threatening to take over.
Over the years, “Backyard Farmer” has made a special effort to include features from across the state, and the show’s panel has regularly traveled the state to meet Nebraskanians directly.
“‘Backyard Farmer’ is revered among Nebraska gardeners because of the timely expert advice shared through the panel, as well as special features and segments,” said James H. Locklear, director of conservation at Lauritzen. Gardens in Omaha. “And it’s wonderful to see how different parts of the state are showcased and celebrated across features on the road, whether it’s the BYF panel diffuses from a distant location in Lincoln, or when an interesting gardener or landscaping project is presented.
The show’s hosts have long noted that the dedication of volunteers is one of the key ingredients that has contributed to Backyard Farmer’s success. Volunteer work also includes helping out at the Backyard Farmer’s garden on East Campus. During the warm months, the garden receives a steady stream of visitors through scheduled tours and impromptu visits, Lincoln master gardener Cariotto said.
“I’ve led a number of these tours,” he said, “and we also have people who come from all over the state, and sometimes from out of state, to see the garden. So you can see that the Backyard Farmer TV has a major impact on the gardening craze.
In recent years, an ironic result of the covid-19 pandemic was to boost the show’s viewership dramatically as people turned to other uses of their free time. Since March 2020, the numbers for the “Backyard Farmer” YouTube channel have soared to over 10 million views.
Just as a generation of the show’s panelists passed the tasks on to the next generation of extension specialists, “Backyard Farmer” itself was an experience shared by generations of Nebraskas.
“We hear from our loyal viewers about how they watched the show with their parents or grandparents,” Todd said, “and we get questions from young parents on behalf of their young children or adult children who have moved away. in another state.”
This ongoing interaction demonstrates the program’s continued relevance to viewers. Above all, Todd said, “it instills in the people who will care for this planet and each other an appreciation for the wonder and intricacy of gardening.”
“Backyard Farmer,” cherished by generations of viewers, remains a perennial in Nebraska life, seven decades old and still growing.
The 70th season of “Backyard Farmer” premieres at 7 p.m. central time April 7 on Nebraska Public Media. The show airs Thursday through September and repeats at 10 a.m. Saturday on Nebraska Public Media and 4 p.m. Sunday and 5 p.m. Monday on Create.