SUNNYSIDE, Wash. — Art den Hoed is ready for his close-up.
The Sunnyside, Wash., juice grape farmer stands at the end of a row of concord grapes on a Monday morning in August, getting a microphone tucked into his shirt — the better to hear his words against the sounds of the wind that ruffles leaves on the vines.
“I’m on the Washington Grape Society board, and they picked me, I guess,” den Hoed said with a laugh.
Tomas Guzman, host and director of photography for the TV show “Washington Grown,” walks him through what’s going to happen. Guzman and producer Kara Rowe have a list of questions they want to ask, about the family farm, harvesting juice grapes and, maybe the most important: What is one thing you would like people to know about farming and farmers?
It’s not the only stop of the day for the crew members. They’ll go to Bon Vino’s Bistro and Bakery, a Sunnyside restaurant, at lunchtime to ask patrons what they enjoy about the menu and atmosphere, in preparation for another episode about apples.
They and show host Kristi Gorenson will return later to speak with the restaurant’s chef about the apple dishes he prepares.
After a quick lunch, they’re off to Mabton, Wash., to interview farmer Hilario Alvarez, who raises peppers, eggplants, corn, potatoes, peanuts and okra.
“Washington Grown,” now in its fifth season, is funded by nine state agricultural groups and organizations. Their goal is to promote the many crops grown across the state and educate consumers about the connection between the food they eat and the farmers who grow it.
As director of photography Ryan Rowe films, Guzman and den Hoed walk along the rows of grape vines, talking about the difference between raising grapes for juice and grapes for wine. Later, Rowe uses a drone to record video footage from the air of den Hoed’s vineyard.
Den Hoed most wanted to tell viewers about the healthful qualities of concord grape juice.
The 22-minute TV show, he said, gives people more knowledge about the crop and how it is raised.
And it’s reaching its biggest audience yet.
Where to watch
“Washington Grown” used to air on Northwest Cable News in Idaho, Oregon and Washington and on PBS in Eastern Washington. After the program won a regional Emmy award for an Interview-Discussion Program, Seattle TV station KOMO expressed interest in airing it.
Viewership has more than quadrupled since the move in January, said Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, which helps produce the show. The number of viewers used to average 5,000 households per week, he said.
“Now with KOMO, we’re up anywhere between 20,000 and 30,000,” he said.
Ag in disguise
“It’s an ag show disguised as a food show,” Voigt said. “There’s a real desire to learn about farming and reconnect with food. To understand you’re not just getting food in a restaurant or a grocery store — there’s actually a whole big story behind it.”
Viewers tune in to see a chef talk about preparing a potato dish, “and then you hear the story about how the potatoes got there,” Voigt said.
Farmers also talk about their efforts to conserve water, control weeds or deal with labor problems.
The show may cover processing or the transportation system, showing viewers a refrigerated rail car that will take Washington french fries to New York.
Host Kristi Gorenson, a Spokane news radio anchor and producer, grew up in Puyallup, which is known for its fields of berries and daffodils. Her first jobs were picking blueberries and daffodils for two local farms, she said.
“I thought the idea for the show was a great way to teach people about where their food comes from,” Gorenson said. “I’ve learned so much about how crops are grown, harvested and processed. And I’ve learned some pretty great recipes from awesome chefs, too.”
Because PBS stations don’t have commercials, the show must shoot an additional five to six minutes for those outlets. The segments feature a chef who teaches viewers how to prepare a dish at home, or an expert who talks about a crop’s nutritional value.
The new season will include a produce manager offering tips on how to store fruits and vegetables.
Ideas for the show come from a brainstorming session involving different agricultural groups. They select commodities and crops, and consider which growers or restaurants to highlight.
“We don’t always use restaurants in downtown Seattle,” Voigt said. “It may be some little mom and pop in Walla Walla or Dayton.”
The list of possible topics is virtually endless, Voigt said. The state’s farmers grow more than 300 different crops each year.
Anything is fair game, including controversial subjects.
“This show is all about transparency, laying it out there and showing the public what it really looks like to farm or ranch,” Voigt said.
The Emmy award-winning episode featured GMO sweet corn.
“Someone said, ‘Man, do we even tell consumers that?’ and we were like, ‘Heck yeah, we’re going to tell consumers that! It’s an amazing trait that’s really done great things for the sweet corn folks,’” Voigt said. “People want to hear it. Lots of times, they’ll hear the activist’s side or the environmentalist’s side, but what about the farm side? When you can arm a consumer with both sides of the story, they’re better able to make a judgment call.”
The potato commission, Washington Association of Wheat Growers, Washington State Seed Potato Commission and Washington Friends of Farms and Forests created the TV show in 2013.
The potato commission took over production the third season. It has received USDA specialty crop block grants administered by the state Department of Agriculture — $300,000 for the fifth season and $250,000 for the sixth season.
Each 13-episode season costs $375,000 to produce.
The commission must find $75,000 in addition to the grant for season five, and $125,000 for the sixth season, Voigt said.
Voigt said he is confident funding will come together for the sixth season.
Whether the show continues from there depends on the level of funding, he said.
“We’re kind of at the point now where we really have to find some other agricultural groups to help support this,” he said.
Once a farm or commodity group has contributed to the program, the show makes footage available to the group for marketing.
“We have no ownership issues,” Voigt said. “We want this to go everywhere, as far as it will reach. It’s all about telling the story of farming and food.”
Kara Rowe, the former outreach and affairs director for the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, now works for North by Northwest, a Spokane company, as executive producer of “Washington Grown.”
In the beginning, “...it was that idea of ‘Let’s try to get ag all together to do something,’” she said. “We knew that individually, there’s only so much you can do, but as a group, we can move mountains.”
Rowe is gratified to see so many commodities unite to develop the show. Fifth season sponsors are the potato commission, Washington Apple Commission, Washington Red Raspberry Commission, Washington State Conservation Commission, Washington Wine Commission, Washington State Mint Commission, PCC Farmland Trust, the Washington State Grape Society and Washington Hospitality Association.
“To see this effort that has now gone from wheat and potatoes to potatoes, wine, beef, dairy, grape juice growers — the whole spectrum of specialty crops — we’ve always talked about how Washington is a melting pot of agriculture, but we get to see it first-hand,” she said.
The best part, Rowe said, is hearing people in Seattle say how much they love the show, and that they are learning about food and farming.
“To see the consumers on the other end, those soccer moms and food-buying decision-makers, actually influenced by this little thing we concocted a few years ago is pretty amazing,” she said. “It’s made the impact we hoped it would.”
The most popular segment of “Washington Grown” is about L&L onion farm near Pasco. The episode, from the first season, is on the YouTube website and has received more than 41,400 views, said Karla Salp, communications and outreach specialist for the state Department of Agriculture.
The farming segments appear to be most popular, she said.
Salp said she’s not surprised by the level of enthusiasm for the show’s message.
“To them, farming is unique and a little bit weird and ‘Who does that any more? Not too many people, right?’” she said.
That lack of a shared background makes it difficult for farmers and consumers to connect, Salp said.
“When you explain to people how it really works, most people are just really open to learning about that and change those (preconceived) beliefs, especially when you hear it from a farmer who’s actually doing it ... and shows them the truth about how things are grown,” she said.
Den Hoed, the grape farmer, said he enjoys watching the show. He knows a lot about his crop, but the show offers a chance to learn more about the kinds of agriculture with which he has less experience.
“There’s a lot of different things that are important ... that we know very little about on the crops that we don’t raise,” he said.
After filming, den Hoed’s enthusiasm was evident. He shook hands with each member of the “Washington Grown” production team.
“If it didn’t turn out, come again,” he told them. “It was kind of fun.”