FRANKFORT – Twenty years ago, viewers of Kentucky Afield tuned their televisions to a most unusual sight: a new, unknown host named Tim Farmer pulling back a bowstring with his teeth and shooting a shotgun one handed, hitting his targets with ease.
On Dec. 31, Farmer, the high energy, folksy host who never let his injured arm hold him back, will retire from the show after decades of bringing the best of the state’s outdoors to viewers every week on Kentucky Educational Television (KET).
Fans will still be able to see him on Kentucky Afield until his replacement is named. Viewers can also catch his two other shows, Tim Farmer’s Country Kitchen and Tim Farmer’s Homemade Jam, both airing on KET.
When Farmer started his television career with Kentucky Afield in 1995, he did so with a sense of apprehension. After all, he was going from a fisheries technician who worked outside of the spotlight to hosting one of the most popular shows on the state’s public network.
“I took my job interview light heartedly because I knew they weren’t going to hire me anyway,” Farmer recalled. “I was cutting up and acting goofy. Then I got the job.”
The news stunned him. “I thought, what am I going to do?” he said. “I know I put in for it, but I didn’t think I’d get it.”
He sought out Byron Crawford, an experienced television journalist who was just starting a show called Kentucky Life on KET. “I asked Byron for some advice,” Farmer said, “because I knew I could do the hunting and fishing, but I wasn’t sure about the rest of it. He said, ‘You should be you.’ He told me that when I looked at the camera, I should pretend that I was talking to my grandmother.”
Kentucky Afield has followed its own path among outdoor shows since then. There’s no blaring rock music or competition to get the biggest fish or game. Instead, the show focuses on everyday folks just enjoying the outdoors.
“A lot of the outdoor shows are about chasing big deer or some other trophy that most of us will never have an opportunity to see, let alone take,” said Scott Moore, who became Kentucky Afield’s executive producer in 2005. “Tim Farmer opened the outdoors for everyone to enjoy, whether they take home something or not.”
The formula works. In the past 10 years, Farmer has won five coveted Emmy Awards.
The popularity comes with a price, however. It’s rare that Farmer can go anywhere without someone stopping him to chat or take a selfie. Farmer, who is keenly aware of his fame but never considered himself a star, obliges.
“I never saw a time when Tim Farmer wouldn’t stop to return a conversation with someone or have his photo taken with someone – ever,” said Moore. “It’s difficult for him to go to the grocery store to pick up a can of tomatoes, knowing he will be there an extra 30 minutes.”
“My job,” Farmer said, “is not to be a rock star, but to relay the department’s message. We never wanted to be arrogant or self-serving.”
He takes his fame in stride, even when his co-workers have some fun at his expense. “Sometimes I’ll go in a store with him and yell, ‘Hey there’s Tim Farmer!’ ” Moore said. “Then I’ll run off and have a good laugh about what happens next.”
Farmer receives so many questions about his injured right arm that he’s taken to telling tall tales about what happened to it. Sometimes it’s the result of a stage collapse at a clogging contest. Sometimes it’s a shark bite.
Always, he comes around to the real story: it was mangled during a 1984 motorcycle wreck.
Much of Farmer’s best work occurs quietly off camera, however. He stands as an example of what people can accomplish despite fierce obstacles. He’s volunteered for the patients and as a fund-raiser for Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital in Lexington. He routinely helps people with missing or lifeless limbs find a way to enjoy the outdoors again.
His return to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center several years ago to help wounded soldiers proved bittersweet. Farmer, who was serving in the U.S. Marines when he crashed his motorcycle, recovered from his accident there.
“Hospitals are scary places for me,” Farmer said. “When I was at Walter Reed before, there really wasn’t anybody else there, and no one to talk to me about adaptive equipment. So I went there with great fear.”
Eighty patients – pale from their extended stays inside – showed up that day to watch videos of Farmer showing how adaptive equipment could allow them to enjoy the outdoors again. He gave the soldiers hope and encouragement. “I wanted to let them know whatever they wanted to try, there was a way,” he said.
It’s another accident, however, that’s spurred Farmer’s decision to retire at the end of the year. His wife, Nicki, suffered a broken neck during a traffic accident in the summer. It’s been a long recovery.
The effects of Farmer’s own motorcycle wreck continue to linger. The pain in his arm is nearly unbearable at times, especially in the winter. He believes that it’s time to pass the torch to someone else.
“How do you leave the best job in the world? You don’t want to leave your friends and your buddies,” he said. “I’ve just decided that I want to stay closer to home.”
Author Dave Baker serves as editor of Kentucky Afield magazine.