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Views and opinions: Farm families join ranks of reality-show television

From the producers of “Deadliest Catch” and “Storage Wars” comes a new series about farming. “The American Farm” debuts on the History Channel April 4.

The eight-part series follows the lives of five farm families. The producers sent the first episode out to media earlier this week, so I decided to sit down and watch it. It will be interesting to see what people make of the new show.

There is definitely the same style as any of these reality television shows; the producers want to make you care about the people, while at the same time making you feel as if at any second something bad will happen. Each pause before a commercial break builds up something that might seem scary or dangerous in the next segment – but which in reality generally turns out to be not that dramatic.

The first episode introduces viewers to four of the five families who will be featured. First up is the Sunderland family of Chester, Utah. The farm is run by Scott Sunderland and his son-in-law, Brett Madsen. We see them taking possession of 14,000 baby turkeys and learn they have mortgaged the farm to put in 18 full-scale turkey barns.

Unfortunately, a down turkey market forces them to renegotiate their contract and they are told if they perform well, they won’t have any worries, but if they don’t, things won’t look good for them in the next year in terms of being given turkeys to raise. The family needs 90 percent or more of their birds to survive to market in order to make ends meet.

In Humboldt, Tenn., we meet the Griggs Family, who have a fifth-generation farm with cotton, corn, and soybeans on 1,500 acres. With costs going up, Matt Griggs decides to add more land to the farm and he goes into debt to buy 78 acres at a cost of $215,000. Unfortunately, he failed to tell his wife, Kelly, about the purchase until after he had made it.

As you can imagine, this isn’t going well. And for dramatic effect we see Matt planting corn and then hearing a weather forecast that predicts a chance of hail. Viewers will have to tune in the next week to find out how he smoothes things over with Kelly, and whether his corn crop makes it.

One of the more popular families will most likely be the Robertsons of Contoocook, N.H., owners of Bohanan Farm and Contoocook Creamery. The commercial dairy produces its own cheese and delivers bottled milk locally. Viewers will most likely enjoy watching the three Robertson brothers – Si, Nate, and Bram – with their bushy beards and senses of humor.

The three sons are all adults and want to be part of the family farm. But the farm isn’t big enough to support four families. So the dad takes out a $600,000 loan to upgrade the dairy side of things so they can process their own milk rather than trucking it Maine for processing. This means he will have to borrow money in the short term each month to feed the cattle, as well.

Farmer John Boyd Jr. of Baskerville, Va., has the opposite problem. He has a son and stepson, and neither seems interested in taking over the family farm. Boyd, who is the president of the National Black Farmers Assoc. (and has been featured in Farm World), is farming land that has been in his family for four generations.

He divorced, and his son spent most of his time with his mother and only about 20 percent of his time on the farm. On the first episode the son appears to have little understanding of what is happening on the farm and we see him learning to drive a tractor. The stepson tries to bring in some cows that need to go to market so the farm can raise capital, but he ignores Boyd’s instructions and just ends up chasing the cows around the field and never getting them to the pen.

The only group we don’t meet on the first episode is the family of Tim Myers, who lives 400 miles from the nearest road in Bethel, Alaska.

Based on this first episode, the show may have more appeal to non-farmers who will be fascinated or horrified at the lives farmers lead, such as watching the dairy cattle on the Bohanan farm slop through manure and the young men wading through it in their boots, or seeing the way the turkeys are raised in a commercial environment.

However, I think the first episode does let people have a glimpse into how difficult farming can be and how much money it takes, and how slim (or nonexistent) the profit margin is. If you end up watching the show, let me know what you think. Feel free to send a letter to the editor via email at