Celebrating an anniversary sometimes means taking a trip.
For the crew of “This Week in Louisiana Agriculture,” marking its 30th year on the air this week, the destination was Turkey. This wasn’t the first excursion abroad for the show, but it was one the crew won’t soon forget.
“I think it far exceeded our expectations about what we were going to find,” host Michael Danna said last week, two days after the group’s return.
“This Week” traveled to Turkey initially to report on how the local farmers and aid organizations are feeding the approximately 14,000 refugees who have fled Syria, crossing the northern border into their country.
The refugees are escaping a military crackdown against pro-democracy protests, which began in March, demanding the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“This story started out as a ‘how do you feed them?’ to ‘my God!” Danna said.
“We interviewed two Syrian refugees, one we picked up in this little town. It took about a half hour negotiation just to get the guy on the bus. When we finally got him on the bus, of course, he did not want to give his name, we couldn’t show his face, he had his worry beads in his hand, his feet were constantly moving, tapping.
“The stories that this guy was telling about the brutality that al-Assad has unleashed against his people is just, it is unbelievable. Once we finally got him in the van, we had to draw all the curtains, and leave the downtown area, and drive to kind of the outskirts of town and we just parked the van on the side of the road, and we did the interview, ” Danna said.
“He was saying that Syrian forces are kind of posing as refugees and coming across, seeing who’s there, and I mean there are reprisals for these people I’m certain if they return to Syria,” Danna said. “The second guy was not so concerned about it. He was an older gentleman, and he talked about just some of the things that al-Assad is doing to his people. In one of the rural areas, and this is harvest time, and they are burning the crops and killing the livestock. I mean they’re doing everything they can to just crush this rebellion, and it was pretty intense.”
Stories the first man related were even more disturbing.
“The guy who we interviewed first in the van had led a protest at a post office. As this thing began to grow, the government got wind, and they sent in the military and security,” Danna recalled. “They tied them to the back of a bumper of a car by their feet and they dragged them for 5 miles around the town. Then they brought them back to the square. They were still alive, and they turned them over on their bellies, and all the skin was all gone, and it was exposed bone and flesh. Then they went and rounded up the members of these two men’s families, and they brought them back and they said, according to this guy, ‘Urinate on them, or you’re all dead, and they said, ‘No, we’re not going to do it,’ so they killed them all. I mean this is the stuff that takes farm journalism far beyond anything we’ve ever experienced, I mean it was just really an eye-opening experience to see.”
Baton Rouge lawyer and former WAFB news anchor Julie Baxter conducted the interviews. Baxter’s connection with the Atlas Foundation, an organization which promotes understanding among people of different faiths and cultures, led to her accompanying the “This Week” crew.
“The refugees both wanted to know why the U.S. isn’t helping them,” Danna said. “It was pretty emotional stuff.”
Baxter’s interviews will be the lead story on this weekend’s 30th anniversary show. The half-hour program also will go inside one of Turkey’s cotton mills.
“A bale of cotton comes in through the back door, and bolts of material go out the front door,” Danna said.
Since China swiped most of Turkey’s low-end clothing production, Danna said the country’s textile industry now focuses on high-end fashions that end up on runways in Milan and Paris.
Agriculture is the number one economic engine in the country, producing 65 to 75 percent of the world’s hazelnuts, and about 60 percent of the world’s apricots. Another segment will look at that hazelnut harvest, a bumper crop this year, Danna said.
“They still do it the old-fashioned way. They pick them by hand, they peel them, they lay it out on a hard surface to dry in the sun. The crop is so big, in one particular town (we were talking to some ag minister, outside of Ankara), they closed off a 3-mile stretch of highway and used the highway as the hard surface to spread out the hazelnuts to dry them,” he said.
Viewers will meet a 66-year-old woman who still picks hazelnuts by hand, as she has been doing since she was 15 years old.
In addition to Turkey, the show has, over the years, reported from Chile, Argentina, Brazil, China, Japan and Israel.
“Farmers want to know what their competitors around the world are doing. We try to find some aspect, some story that kind of says, here’s what they’re doing here, and this is how it relates to what you’re doing back home,” he said.
In its early days, “This Week in Louisiana Agriculture” was just that, focusing on the state’s farmers, producing a half-hour show weekly with a staff of three, led by Regnal Wallace, who also got the Farm Bureau’s radio network on the air 35 years ago. Even though this was the Farm Bureau’s PR arm, Wallace was committed to telling both sides of any agriculture story, which came to include legislative, consumer and environmental issues as well, Danna said, and the Bureau gave Wallace the leeway to do it.
WAFB was the first station to air the show. It now airs on 17 television stations throughout the state, and nationally on RFD-TV on the Dish Network and DirectTV.
“We’ve expanded. We have more content. We have a staff of seven, you can watch us on the Web, we have a social media presence,” Danna said. “Reg had a vision to tell the farmer’s story. What he did was genius.”