'Farm Kings' reality series set in Butler County
Butler County's King family is trying to make farming cool again.
“Farm Kings,” a new reality series about their lives operating the Middlesex-based Freedom Farms, debuts at 9 p.m. Thursday on the Great American Country (GAC) television network, which reaches 62 million households.
Ten one-hour episodes will air through Nov. 29, taking viewers from planting to harvest with this family of 11 as they deal with Mother Nature, sibling dynamics and the joys and high-risk challenges of an often-grueling pursuit.
While there were mixed emotions among the family — nine brothers, one sister and mother Lisa King, 52 — about being the focus of a television program, they felt it was important to help represent the family farmers of America.
“We take a lot of pride in it.,” says Joe King, who, at 29, is the oldest sibling. “We are trying to make farming cool again. We feel like a dying breeding, with the little guys being squeezed out of a very competitive industry.”
Joe is equal partners with younger brothers Tim, 27, and Pete King, 24 — but clearly is the one is charge.
They get support from sister Elizabeth King, 28, and brothers Dan, 22, Luke, 19, Sam, 17, John, 16, Paul 14, and Ben, 12.
When their parents divorced, brothers Joe, Tim and Pete King bought a spread in 2009 up the road from their father's farm and named it Freedom Farms. They now compete against their father's farm.
They raise chickens and grow 35 varieties of produce on their 150 acres in Middlesex, which they sell to restaurants and farmers' markets, including three stores they own in Penn and Allegheny townships.
It is not an easy task starting new businesses with this many people in a family, acknowledges mom Lisa, a Carrick native. “We are strong-headed, bull-headed people who don't agree all the time with each other's decisions,” she says. “But we always have each other's back, I've just been blessed.”
In an age in which it seems that “everybody is looking for the easy way out,” Lisa says, “these kids chose the hard way. They sacrificed a lot to do what they believed in. They have a work ethic that is beyond imaginable.”
The show's story editor, Shawn McMullen, found a story on the Kings in Edible Allegheny magazine and brought it to the attention of Stage 3 Production's executive director of development, Aliza Rosen.
“She's a very smart and savvy woman who knew it was a hit,” says Kelly Ryan, partner and executive producer for the Philadelphia company.
Ryan calls “Farm Kings” the ideal reality show.
“It has everything: great, real characters, lots of inherent drama, raw emotion, high-stakes action, all set in an absolutely beautiful, postcard-perfect environment,” she says. “Hollywood could do no better. The Kings were made for TV.”
And Ryan says the Kings inspired this show.
“The concept of a reality show based around farming is a natural, and, then when you look at the Kings and learn their personal story, there was no question they were the show,” she says. “We have an amazingly tough, tenacious woman with 10 children running a fourth-generation farm. Honestly, look at them! They could be models instead of farmers!”
In fact, Pete and Dan have both done print modeling. And each member of the family contributes, she says, including Ben, 12, the youngest, who has Down's syndrome.
“I don't see how America can't fall in love with them. We all certainly have,” Ryan says.
Ryan says most reality shows require a bit of “production” to bring out the drama that makes it entertaining and keeps viewers coming back.
The drama of “Farm Kings” does not have to be created. It is organic, she says. Farming is wrought with drama.
“It is a business in which you can do everything right, and one bad spell of weather can mean total devastation,” she says. The family's annual operating income is largely dependent on what happens in five months. “If a crop gets wiped out due to weather or pests that could represent a $50,000 loss to the family for a year.”
During this season, they went through a 24-day drought and then a devastating hailstorm that destroyed a large portion of their crops, says executive producer Anthony Uro.
“It seriously would have crushed the spirits of ordinary people. But the King creed is ‘failure is not an option' and to watch them band together and claw and fight their way back is an inspiring storyline that we think viewers will really enjoy watching,” he says.
“And anyone from a large family knows that large families are wrought with drama” says Ryan, ”so the show has that going for it as well.”
Filming “Farm Kings” adds to the demands, Lisa King says.
“It is additional work, which slows us down. We only have a small period of time to get done what we need to get done to make it through the year financially,” she says. “It's become another job, stopping to get miked and do re-takes. It's not as easy as you would imagine.”
Customers and neighbors joke about the family being “movie stars,” King says. Her reply: “If I'm a movie star, show me the money.”
Ryan says the Kings are “modestly compensated,” as are most reality-show cast members.
The family is excited to see the reaction to the series debut Thursday. “I don't think we are worried about what people will think about us,” Lisa King says. “We are truly who we are. The show won't change who we are.”
They are first and foremost farmers, she says. ”I am proud to carry on in this tradition. It's in our blood to be farmers,” she says. “Once it's in your blood, it's hard to get out of it even if it is a 93-degree day and the humidity is killing you.”
Pete King believes that for the most part those making the show have captured his family accurately.
“They really are capturing a day in the life of our family. We are very close and we all are hard-working. I like being able to look back at a day's work and knowing you have accomplished something,” he says. “I love being outside every day. This show is a great way to promote the positives about farming.”
“We're a good, old-fashioned regular family. We hear a lot from people who think they want what we have,” Joe King says. “It takes work everyday, but it is worth the effort. What we have is the most valuable thing — each other.”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or firstname.lastname@example.org.