Sharing the realities of farmers on reality TV

Melissa Burns and Will Sutton discuss their advocacy efforts with AFBF Young Farmers & Ranchers Committee Vice Chair Greg Corcoran.

Meet Melissa Burns and Will Sutton: two, small-town farmers who recently competed on separate reality TV shows.

But how did they end up in Los Angeles? The two shared their stories during a workshop Monday at American Farm Bureau Federation's Virtual Convention.

For Burns, CBS’s Tough as Nails Host Phil Keoghan contacted her through Instagram. Intrigued by her use of #FarmerFit hashtags, Keoghan thought she would be a great contestant on the show's inaugural season, she said.

In her Carhartts and a flannel, Burns showed her strength by doing eight minutes of burpees during her audition. Soon after, she was cast as the only farmer on the season.

Burns, a grain farmer from Ohio, said she had to leave her family, farm and feed mill job for 29 days of filming. But she said it was a priceless experience to connect with viewers, other cast members and production staff.

“I feel like I represented the ag community as best as possible,” she shared. “When I got out, I held my head high. You win some and you lose some. Just like in the ag industry – you have some good years and some bad years.”

Sutton, a fifth-year high school ag teacher from eastern North Carolina, was inspired by his students, his dad and local farmers to fill out the application for NBC’s Titan Games.

With all of the misinformation spread on social media, he felt it was important to share ag's story. “We’re the ones impacted by it every day," he said. "If we don’t share our truth, then someone else who doesn’t know as much about it will.”

Sutton, affectionately nicknamed “Country Strong” by fans, shared truth about agriculture -- even with the show's producers, who wanted him to hold a pitchfork with a piece of straw in his mouth. He quickly corrected them that a ripped T-shirt is much closer to his work attire.

Sutton said his appearance on the show sparked a lot of questions about FFA and ag education from fans and the public.

“This gave me a platform so I could make my voice heard more about agriculture and people listened to what I had to say. It actually resonated with them,” he reflected on the experience. “I love agriculture; I’m passionate about it. I want it to succeed and keep growing. It gave me a place for my voice to be head a little more.”