How Nebraska’s long-running gardening show ‘Backyard Farmer’ has taken root on social media

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A "Backyard Farmer" panel during a remote broadcast at the 2015 Nebraska State Fair. Left to right: host Kim Todd, former Nebraska Extension entomologist Fred Baxendale, former Nebraska turfgrass specialist Bill Kreuser, Nebraska Extension plant pathologist Amy Timmerman and Nebraska Extension educator Elizabeth Exstrom.

A venerable gardening TV show on Nebraska Public Media is celebrating 70 years on the air with an eye toward future growth, bolstered by its recent success finding new audiences on digital platforms.

Since its debut on June 1, 1953, Backyard Farmer has helped generations of home horticulturists with lawn and garden care. Co-produced by NPM and Nebraska Extension, its format has barely changed over the decades, with horticulturist Kim Todd, who has hosted the show since 2004, posing viewers’ questions to a rotating panel of university experts. It’s said to be the longest-running locally produced TV series in the country.

The tried and tested structure is a main reason that the show has endured, says producer Hannah Stodolka. 

“People connect to the show because they grew up watching it on their televisions with their family. People really make it a part of their weekly routine,” says Stodolka. “Just knowing it’s produced locally [and] has local talent and people from the state talking to other people from the state has really made it stick.”

In recent years, Backyard Farmer has sought to expand that appeal beyond TV and outside of its home state. It’s an opportune time for growth: Studies have shown that the COVID pandemic inspired millions of people to take up gardening for the first time, creating a vast new audience for the show to tap into.

“We diversified our tools to reach those people,” says Terri James, Backyard Farmer’s social media coordinator. “… Being in the digital space has allowed us to promote how plants and people connect, which is what Backyard Farmer has been doing” since it began, she says.

"Backyard Farmer" panelists in the studio in a 1950s-era photo. Left to right: host and UNL Director of Communications George Round, Nebraska Extension turf and weed specialist John Furrer, Nebraska Extension plant pathologist John Weihing and Nebraska Extension horticulture educator Wayne Whitney.
“Backyard Farmer” panelists in the studio in a 1950s-era photo. Left to right: host and UNL Director of Communications George Round, Nebraska Extension turf and weed specialist John Furrer, Nebraska Extension plant pathologist John Weihing and Nebraska Extension horticulture educator Wayne Whitney.

When James started in her role in 2009, Backyard Farmer had yet to join any social media platforms. At the time, no one connected with the show knew the potential. Today, Backyard Farmer’s YouTube channel has over 22,000 subscribers, and its videos have amassed over 10 million views. 

For Bradley Mills, a producer for the show since 1996, the human connection has been key to the show’s success, even as it has expanded online. “You can’t just go to Google and develop a relationship” with your computer, he says. 

For the show’s 70th season, Mills asked viewers why they watch the show as part of a short documentary. “It was the same answer, ‘My dad watched. My grandfather watched it. And my kids are watching it,’” Mills says. “It’s handed down. If you take a step back, it’s just a gardening program where we answer questions.” 

An ‘iconic brand’ in Nebraska

With its long track record, Backyard Farmer stands apart from other content and videos available on YouTube and Facebook. Its decades-long history has proven it to be a reliable source of information that can help users with their gardening needs and change their long-term practices.

James H. Locklear, director of conservation at Lauritzen Gardens in Omaha, has been watching Backyard Farmer ever since he moved to the state in the early 1980s. He credits the show with helping to move media coverage of gardening away from the Eastern U.S., “where a lot of the gardening magazines are made and where the universities have larger horticulture departments,” he says.

Backyard Farmer is an “iconic brand” in Nebraska, Locklear says. “It’s local and regional information that hasn’t been generated from a distant university or magazine,” he says. “It has so much respectability in Nebraska because it’s made in a very accessible way and provides good information about gardening in Nebraska.”

Even before it began finding new audiences on social media, the internet transformed Backyard Farmer’s production. Previously, gardeners in need called an 800 number displayed on screen during the live show. Volunteers answered the calls, wrote down questions and handed them off to the show’s producers. The volunteers included garden-center retail employees, professional landscapers and lawn-care specialists. 

The show used to get 100 calls a week. “When email started, we began to print them off and incorporate those,” Todd said. “It’s quaint to think about, but we’d get four or five emails a week. Now that the internet has become stronger and we have a consistent audience thanks to Facebook and YouTube, 95% of viewers’ questions and, more importantly, pictures of their problems come from emails and social media.”

The change has improved the show, says Mills. “Before, somebody would say, ‘I have brown spots on my plant.’ It could have been anything. Our experts would basically give their best guess,” he says. “Now they send a picture, and the specialists can see what kind of plant it is, where it’s located and what the damage is. We can give a much better informed answer to their question.”

Diversifying the audience’s age

James notes that the show’s “good, reliable, research-based information” differs from many other gardening videos available online. Those often advise viewers to use household chemicals or to “get the best weed killer out there that doesn’t actually work,” she says.

When James began running the show’s social media, she learned what worked from “trial and error,” she says — “figuring out when was a good time to post things, recognizing that we get the most engagement when [viewers] actually respond back.”

Using demographic data from Nielsen, James decided that the show should first focus on Facebook. “We knew our demographic was mainly women over the age of 55,” says James. “Facebook was the sweet spot for that.” 

“It has so much respectability in Nebraska because it’s made in a very accessible way and provides good information about gardening in Nebraska.”

James H. Locklear, director of conservation, Lauritzen Gardens in Omaha

Sharing video on other platforms also proved key. After initially putting Backyard Farmer videos on Yahoo in 2006, Mills began to post on YouTube around 2008 when the platform started to get popular. “As YouTube started to dominate the other platforms, our audience exploded,” says Mills. Today, the show is by far the most popular among all YouTube content produced within the University of Nebraska system.

In the past year and a half, the show has “really been pushing Instagram,” James says, to pursue the platform’s audience of women ages 35 to 55. The age of the show’s viewers across platforms has become much more diverse. Its audiences on YouTube, Instagram and Twitter skew younger, with its YouTube videos popular among men from 25 to 56. 

Thanks to its digital presence, Backyard Farmer is now seen by people all over the world. “We’ve had emails from Australia, England, Alaska, a lot from the Southeast part of the country, like Georgia, Alabama, and North and South Carolina,” says James.

Despite the fact that Backyard Farmer is still primarily aimed at Nebraska-based viewers, Mills says that the show has prospered because there are “certain principles about gardening that are universal.”

Teaching young viewers

Backyard Farmer’s digital success has allowed its production team to gather more data about the demographics of the show’s audience, as well as how and where content reaches viewers. “We have figured out the different groups that we are able to reach,” James says. “… We can see what questions are coming in, where they’re coming in from and at what time.”

Todd says that her public interactions about the show are usually with older people. But she notes that the show regularly receives emails from “very loyal viewers who have four-, five- and six-year-olds that love watching Backyard Farmer and regularly come to our live events.”

“25- to 35-year-olds are maybe wanting their kids to learn more about STEM. Schools are teaching things so differently than they did,” says Todd. “If their kids are interested in growing something and they’re not scared of insects, they can watch our show to learn how.”

Despite its huge online success connecting with viewers online, Mills says that he envisions it will be a challenge to keep up with what internet users want from the show’s YouTube channel, especially because he already struggles to find the time to interact with them and answer their questions.

“Now it seems I need to keep up with a lot of marketing and promotion as well as understanding the algorithm,” he says. “… When the show is in season, it’s really difficult to do all of the little things that need to be done in order to expand the audience.” Mills envisions the show may need to hire someone more specialized in YouTube skills to help the show continue to advance on the platform.

“I want Backyard Farmer to go on for another 70 years,” says Mills. “We provide something really valuable to the people in the state.”

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