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Long-running show an ag institution in Mississippi

‘Farmweek’ celebrates 25 years on the air

STARKVILLE — Over the past quarter of a century, the entire landscape of farming in Mississippi has changed. New technology and techniques, increased foreign competition and the rise of corporate farms are just a few of these changes.

But one thing has remained constant and familiar — “Farmweek,” the weekly television show that is produced by the Mississippi State University (MSU) Extension Service and airs on Mississippi Educational Television (ETV). First broadcast Oct. 3, 1977, “Farmweek” is celebrating its 25-year anniversary and has now aired more than 1,275 episodes — all new, no reruns. And while there have been plenty of changes and innovations behind the camera, viewers have seen little change in the show’s format since its inception.

“I think it’s because we offer real-world, in-the-field stories, featuring real people” said co-host Artis Ford on “Farmweek”’s longevity. “We have a wealth of technical experience here at the Extension Service, which has 82 offices in the state, and certainly that’s a huge asset for the show. But if we just stayed in the studio and only talked with our experts, I don’t think the show would have the same appeal.

“All our episodes are new. We may get an old feature and run it again, but every show is a new production. We don’t repackage shows. It’s always fresh.

“There has been little change in format over the years. We used to crunch a lot of numbers, and now, instead, we do more trend analysis. We have also obviously changed the look of the show and the graphics. But other than that, it remains for the most part unchanged.”

According to Ford, “Farmweek” got its impetus from the Mississippi Legislature. Mississippi ETV was in its infancy in 1977, and lawmakers wanted to see a show dedicated to the state’s agriculture industry. Collaboration between ETV and the Extension Service spawned “Farmweek.”

The production of the show has evolved over the years from 16mm film and all production done in Jackson to today’s version that is produced electronically at MSU’s Television Center and sent by satellite to ETV’s studios. The show is produced by Ford, who has been with the show for more than 18 years over two stints; co-host Leighton Spann, who has been on “Farmweek” since 1994; Brian Utley; Tyson Gair, who hosted the show from 1978-1989; and a crew of more than 20 at the MSU Television Center. Another 12-15 ETV personnel work on each episode in Jackson.

The studio portion of the show is taped on Tuesdays at the Television Center, which takes about an hour and a half. The in-the-field segments, graphics, etc. are then added and sent to Jackson to air that evening.

The show over the years has held a steady audience. An independent telephone survey conducted in August 2000 found 135,000 Mississippi adults watch “Farmweek” two or more times a month. And a number of those adults are not farmers, as evidenced by the response from a radio promotion that airs weekly on Public Radio in Mississippi (PRM), whose audience is largely non-farming.

“Since I’ve been here, we’ve produced a weekly segment each Tuesday on PRM that gives us a chance to cross-promote a story that will be featured on the upcoming episode of ‘Farmweek’,” Spann said. “It’s just a four-minute segment. But the people we have featured on PRM tell us they get all kinds of calls from people saying they heard the feature on PRM. ‘Farmweek’ is produced for farmers, but we also try to offer programming that is of interest to the general, non-farming public.”

Ford said, “We have a lot of part-time farmers out there now, people who have other jobs and sources of income but are raising cattle or pine trees or whatever. It’s a growing trend. So, we have started offering more and more information on things like land use, wildlife management. And I believe we’ll be doing more of that in the future as more landowners become interested in productive use of their property.”

With most all ag markets down and Mississippi’s farmers struggling to survive, is there a temptation at “Farmweek” to turn “feel-good” — to go out looking for sunnier, happier news? Ford says “no.”

“When times are bad, like they are now, we try to stress that there is no magic bullet out there,” Ford said. “Our message is not to panic and get away from smart practices. We say, ‘Hey, if you’re going to trim costs, don’t trim here.’ It’s a time to stress the fundamentals.”

Both Ford and Spann said they would look to tweak the show as other trends develop, and they also would like to make the “Farmweek” Web site (http://msucares.com/news/farmweek/) more interactive with streaming video and other features. But neither sees big changes in style or programming on the horizon, and both said they still enjoy their work.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Ford said. “We get to go out and shoot video all over the state and meet interesting people doing interesting things, and we’re given a tremendous amount of freedom. It’s a great job.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

About Wally Northway

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