Calum Henderson writes about (mainly terrible) television.

Calum Henderson: Reality fatigue? The answer lies in the soil

Young Farmer of the Year competition is exciting and compelling. writes Calum Henderson.
Athol New's Young Farmer of the Year performance made compulsive viewing. Photo / Supplied
Athol New's Young Farmer of the Year performance made compulsive viewing. Photo / Supplied

New Zealand's attempts at reality television have a weird habit of going to the dogs after one or two seasons. The Bachelor's slow implosion earlier this year should have come as no surprise to anyone who watched the exact same thing happening to the second season of X Factor the year before.

The bubble is well overdue to burst on The Block, and the likes of Masterchef and My Kitchen Rules have long since gone off the boil. The situation has got so desperate that there's been talk of bringing back Dancing With the Stars, again.

But what if the answer to our reality woes has been under our noses all along? What if there was an event with proven longevity which drew together elements from all these shows and more?

It played without fanfare on Sunday afternoon, when highlights of the FMG Young Farmer of the Year final screened on TV One.

The competition has been an annual fixture on New Zealand's rural calendar since 1969, and these days attracts over 500 entrants from across seven regions. These farming men and women spend six months competing in a series of heats, with the winner from each region progressing to the final " kind of like a long, ultra-competitive casting process.

The final takes place over three days, but the amount of work the finalists get through could provide easily enough material for 10 or 12 weeks of TV once you add in their backstories and pieces to camera.

Certainly an hour was nowhere near enough to do any of it justice. Host Mark Leishman hurried through the complex format as various acts of farming flashed before our eyes. The final consisted of five different agri-challenges, each of which seemed to contain a number of different modules.

If The Block can make a gripping episode out of seeing who can build the longest plank then we could spend a good month on the agri-skills challenge alone. In real time it only lasted four hours, with the contestants starting before dawn to each construct a miniature farmlet.

In freezing mid-winter conditions they fiddled around with chainsaws and tinkered with motorbikes before getting stuck in putting up fences, digging trenches and installing irrigation. As the frost thawed they raced against the clock Masterchef-style to finish chopping up firewood and collecting fecal samples from their sheep.

Athol and Jane - these could be household names, easily as famous as Art and Matilda.

Even without the guiding hand of a reality producer the challenges are sprinkled with light-hearted flourishes. The 'agricultural ironman' started with contestants having to chuck a Frisbee into a separator and ended with them having to set up a fireman's hose and spray down a tent. That's one way to discourage freedom campers.

Some areas might need a bit of work. The closed-door written agri-business exam might be unsalvageable for primetime, but the 45-minute market innovation presentation each contestant had to give could easily be tweaked into a Dragons' Den style challenge.

After three days it all came down to a battle of the top two inches. With Leishman as their quizmaster the seven contestants fielded a Mastermind style volley of questions testing their agricultural ("In rye grass, what unit is used to record 1000 seed weight?") and general ("Who is New Zealand's race relations commissioner?") knowledge.

Aorangi region dairy farm manager Athol New held his nerve in what seemed like a marathon quiz to emerge as the 2016 FMG Young Farmer of the Year. His list of prizes included $15,000 cash, a Honda quad bike and a VIP experience at a Vodafone Warriors game.

He humbly thanked about half of Timaru in his acceptance speech, but was especially grateful to his wife Jane, who stood proudly by his side.

Athol and Jane " these could be household names, easily as famous as Art and Matilda. The raw elements of all our reality television favourites all exist in farming, its huge potential hidden in plain sight all along.

- NZ Herald

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