My days as a BFD on Backyard Farmer
Some journalists go to good schools, Ivy or otherwise. Most enter the workforce well-informed and reasonably well-hired, at good-sized regional newspapers, TV networks or radio stations.
Me? I graduated from a Moo U and got my start with Backyard Farmer.
We don’t need to cue up the soundtrack for Dreamgirls here, but my rags-to-no riches story is laced with RoundUp and began with a public television gardening show. I’ve already shared with you my beginnings with stock shows. Now I’m coming out of the closet with the other part of my Extension Service job.
For a couple years in the late 1980s, I was producer and host of “Backyard Farmer,” what I'm told is one of the longest-running shows in U.S. television history, allegedly beating out Bozo the Clown for longevity. Still on the air today, Backyard Farmer is among the crown jewels of Nebraska Educational Television, alongside the very popular Husker Football program.
From spring through fall, Backyard Farmer airs weekly for an hour, a live show with the host putting viewer’s questions to four respected scientists. Questions about root rot, mildew, weeds, pesky pests, or crabgrass -- you name it, we didn’t back down from the hot controversies of the lawn and garden beat.
Opening with a tink-a-tink-a-tink upbeat song, I, along with a horticulturist, an entomologist and a couple plant pathologists, sat at a long U-shaped desk. Sorta like TV anchors, without the helmet hair and high salaries. And, well, news.
To say we did this on a budget is beside the point, right? The scientists appeared as part of their day jobs, my sister Paula ran the tele-prompter and we had volunteer master gardeners in a back room off-camera answering the phones.
The show was very popular – we had a calendar paid for by our funder, Earl May Garden Center, and we had a bumper sticker I put on my old Ford Falcon, the one I bought for $250 from Weird Wally’s in Lincoln. The bumper sticker read, I kid you not: “I dig BACKYARD FARMER on NEBRASKA ETV.”
I daydreamed about BYF, as we called it, as my BFD launching pad. Driving to work in the Falcon, singing along as Peter Gabriel’s hit song, “Big Time” played on the radio, I’d daydream about getting out, going on to be a real reporter. I’d send out videotapes of the show – back then broadcast tape was ¾-inch, or about the size of a large book – and I’m betting I gave a few small-market news directors a good laugh.
Although I was thinking I was the Jessica Savitch of the stock show circuit, in fact I was just bringing the perm to public television. On the positive side, I know I got a good education in broadcast production, thanks to the top-notch producers at NET who taught this neophyte a great deal. And hell, once you do Backyard Farmer, live radio and TV is a piece of cake.
My parents loved it when they were stopped in the grocery store and heard that someone from our town in central Nebraska, up near the South Dakota border, had seen their girl on the Backyard Farmer that week. And that’s only part of the reason they were upset when I finally landed another gig – not as a TV reporter but something I longed for even more: the ill-defined but much longed-for "real reporter."