By Rebecca M. Bartels
Pop culture and produce aren’t generally considered two peas in the same pod. But, when a local publication featured the King brothers shirtless on the cover, Hollywood (or Nashville) took note for its new ag reality show concept. With a unique backstory, an array of personalities, and more muscles and glittery grins than the pages of GQ, Freedom Farms in Butler, PA, is making history in the form of the Great American Country channel’s new hit show, “Farm Kings.”
The show, which stars the 10 King siblings, ranging in age from 29 to 12, and their mother, Lisa, highlights the struggles and triumphs of the King family since they started the 150-acre operation in 2009 as a way to start fresh. “Freedom Farms means a lot of things,” explains Joe, the eldest brother, known as the, “idea guy,” and charged with much of the organization of the operation. “We as a family are free to do what we love. We’re not locked into being herded like sheep and cattle through universities and to desk jobs. We’re living our lives based on the land.”
In addition to what it means to them, Freedom means something to their customers as well. “We want people to have the freedom to choose what they eat; we want them to have the freedom to know what’s in their food and where it came from.”
Joe explains that the culture of eating has changed so much in recent years. “People don’t sit down and eat together. They aren’t cooking meals as often, much less using fresh ingredients to do it. They buy in smaller amounts and don’t really plan ahead. We hope that our exposure on ‘Farm Kings’ will help turn that around.”
The Kings grow more than 40 different vegetable varieties as well as poultry, but, in addition to their produce and local businesses, they are known for their Great American Country channel hit, “Farm Kings,” which airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. (8 Central). The channel reels in the viewers, saying, “Join the King Family of Freedom Farms as they battle the elements and each other to provide the Pittsburgh region with the freshest produce possible.”
When the family was approached by Stage 3 Productions with the show idea, the Kings had a few goals in mind. “We wanted to reach an audience we wouldn’t normally reach,” explains Pete, 24, known on the show as the “human harvester.”
In addition, Joe says that there is a more overarching theme. “The reputation of being a farmer isn’t a great one,” he says. “We want to change that. We want to make people proud of what they do.”
The youth aspect of the operation also is a unique one in the industry. Although Lisa, known to most as “Mama Bear,” owns most of the land, she has taken a decidedly hands-off role in the management aspects. “My sons are amazing,” she states proudly. “Their hearts just had farming in them.”
Although the brothers, who have various degrees ranging from engineering to special education, had left their former operation to pursue other careers, they all returned to their mother’s side to begin Freedom Farm. “They were really born to farm,” Lisa explains. “I take a backseat and make the pies and do the cooking and flowers. Youth is a good thing.”
Joe agrees, emphasizing the importance of the creativity and freshness young people bring to the table. In addition, he sees a paradigm shift in the culture of ag as a whole. “The older generation views other operations in the area as competition,” he says. “We work together with growers in the region to bring our customers fresh, local food as a group. The new generation, instead of working against each other, has been working together, viewing only the wholesalers as competition.”
Joe does express concern, however, for young people in other walks of life. “So many people nowadays have no passion.” he says. “They’ve never worked a hard job and they’ve never really known what they want. We hope our show will inspire people.”
Tim, 27, known as the “plant doctor,” believes it has. With the exposure in the media, there have been a lot of inquiries for labor. “You’ve got to get the labor young,” he explains. Joe says that Tim takes pride in bringing youth into ag, but that they don’t expect people who weren’t raised on a farm to decide it’s the life for them. “It has to be in your blood,” he says. “If you get one out of 20 workers that make it through the season, that’s good. But we take satisfaction in their progression.”
In addition to the nitty-gritty work on the farm, the Kings have an array of businesses that use their produce. With Boldy’s Homemade Goodies, located down the road from the farm market, rolling out baked comfort foods like donuts and danishes as well as pies, to Freedom Farms Market, which has not only the fresh produce grown at Freedom Farms, but also Lisa’s made-to-order meals such as soups as well as meats and cheeses, the King family is covering all its bases. With so many businesses to supply, though, one wonders if 150 acres is enough.
“We do get produce from other operations,” explains Joe, emphasizing the family’s dedication to Pennsylvania growers due to the Buy Fresh, Buy Local movement. “But it’s all local and is only from growers who we have built a strong relationship with. When you buy produce from our market, it’s Freedom Farm quality.”
Taking Care Of Business
Freedom Farm quality is something all of the farm’s proprietors take pride in. With a weekly meeting for the stakeholders (the four older brothers) of the operation to discuss large-scale decisions, the family takes things like sustainability and crop choices into account.
“Taking care of the ground is very important,” explains Tim. “There’s more to ground care than your Ns, Ps, and Ks, we‘re using micronutrients to meet all of the needs of the plant.” In addition, the operation utilizes cover crops, compost, and manure, and regularly performs soil tests.
“It’s simple to tell if your land is good or not,” says Tim, “just look at the color of the soil.”
Joe also explains that their goal of producing quality fruits and vegetables could benefit from the “Farm Kings” TV show simply though feedback from the audience. Apparently, although many may be simply watching for the entertainment value of farm drama, others are taking note, contributing to the King brothers’ efforts. “We’ve received a few calls from people just wanting to give us advice,” says Joe.
In addition to callers, the family has had visitors from all over the country. They’ve come from Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. “Most people are just curious,” explains Lisa, “but we always welcome the visitors!”
When questioned about their reactions to the fame the show has brought about, the family remained humble and seemingly unaffected. “It hasn’t sunk in yet,” said Lisa. Joe echoed her disbelief, saying, “although there has been an uptick in market visitors and labor applicants, things are pretty much the same.”
The cons of filming were pretty much unanimous across the board, though. “Having people follow you around with a camera all the time requires scheduling. When things are already so hectic around here, that was a little difficult,” explains Joe.
Summing up what he’s learned thus far pretty articulately, Tim says: “Mother Nature is cruel, but we’re getting through things together.” Like the family’s slogan says, splashed across t-shirts and totes available for curious fans, the boys really were, “born to farm.”
See page 2 to find out how Freedom Farms incorporates high tunnels into its growing practices.
High tunnel production is a huge part of Butler, PA- based King
family’s Freedom Farms operation. The brothers knew the importance of being early to the market with their produce and the last ones with fresh goods when the season comes to a close, so they invested in the tunnels within the first six months of owning Freedom Farms.
Having constructed the high tunnels themselves, they admit they’ve been learning as they go. Joe King, for example, the eldest of the nine brothers, says that one year they didn’t brace a tunnel well enough and it was blown down. They have grown steadily year after year, though, saying that every six months they look back and can see major progress. “In our neighborhood, though, it is more important than ever to be the first farm with fresh produce when the season begins.”
The sense of competition can be explained by a simple Google search of local ag operations. A scan of the region showed dozens of farms in the area, and although the family expressed a desire to work in conjunction with other farms, they also have to use their business sense. “Being the first at the market with sweet corn is key,” explains Tim, who is largely in charge of the 50 acres of vegetables the operation cultivates. “If you’re the only one with the goods,” he explains, “they’ll come back not only because it tastes great, but out of habit.“
Furthermore, in order to promote their produce, the family doesn’t rely solely on their market’s ideal location on a main road, they utilize newsletters and their website (www.freedomfarmspa.com)to
let people know what’s fresh.
Bartels is assistant editor, horticulture group at Meister Media Worldwide.
Tags: agri-tainment, reality TV