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Ohio farmer competes on 'Tough as Nails' TV series

July 8 is the premiere of this CBS reality series highlighting tough American jobs.

As a farmer, Melissa Burns has plenty of real-world experience with long, tough days. She’s also had some long, tough days working on a new reality TV show that highlights Americans with a variety of physically and mentally demanding careers.

The show, “Tough as Nails” airs on CBS, with the series premiere at 9 p.m. Eastern time on July 8. Burns is one of 12 contestants selected through a nationwide search to represent their professions on the show. When series producer and host Phil Keoghan contacted her and invited her to audition, it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up — but she didn’t really think she would be selected, she says. “Who would think a girl from Milford Center, Ohio, would be on national TV?”

Burns grew up in a farming family near Ostrander, Ohio, trying to outwork the guys baling hay. As a teenager, she was a cheerleader and homecoming queen at Buckeye Valley High School. She still has the corresponding bubbly, enthusiastic personality, but now at 28, she’s focused on promoting agriculture.

“I’m a proud Ohio farmer,” she points out. She and her husband, Ron, are working to build their own farming operation near Milford Center. They produce both conventional and organic grain crops and also work with a neighbor, Arthur Ingram, to raise vegetables for sale at area farmers markets. They recently started grinding flour from their own organic wheat, and they produce beef and pork for sale through farmers markets as well. Melissa Burns also works for a nearby hog farm doing daily maintenance, odd jobs and hauling. 

Farm work plus more exercise

Besides staying active with farm work, Burns keeps fit by running and lifting weights. She even trained for and competed in a bodybuilding competition a few years ago, just for fun. She likes working exercise into her daily routine on the farm, using whatever is available — such as a tractor tire as a base for a few elevated pushups, or feed sacks for some weightlifting. She’s posted some of her on-farm workouts on her Instagram account, @farm_fit_wife, along with posts about farm life and healthy eating.

Those posts caught the attention of Keoghan as he was developing the new reality show. Keoghan, who is also the host and producer for the long-running TV show “The Amazing Race,” sent Burns a message on Instagram, but she wasn’t convinced it was really him until they had a video call through Skype, she recalls.

Keoghan invited Burns to audition at a casting call in Cincinnati last December. She went wearing work boots, a plaid shirt and Carhartt trousers, because the organizers wanted to see potential contestants in their work attire. That’s not exactly what she wears on a daily basis, but she wanted to look the part, she explains. Once she got to the audition, she found out she needed to show how fit she was by doing burpees (squat-thrust-jumps) while wearing those work clothes. “I did 89 in eight minutes — I was dying!” she says.

Chosen to advance

Melissa, along with 40 other participants from the nationwide search, advanced to the next round in the selection process. They spent four days in California doing interviews and background checks, and then CBS selected the 12 contestants for the show. The group includes six women and six men with a variety of backgrounds and careers, including a welder, a deputy sheriff, an ironworker, a fisherman, a forestry technician and others with challenging jobs.

Filming started in January, and Burns and the other contestants spent 29 days working together from 6:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. six days a week. For the first week and a half, they were asked not to talk with each other unless they were on camera. That in itself was a challenge for Burns. “I like to talk,” she explains. Contestants were also required to give up their cellphones so they couldn’t have contact with anyone outside the show. “That was a big shock,” she says.

The competition on the show involves challenges based on the hard work it takes to make America run. The contestants were filmed completing tasks at real-world job sites, and they were also filmed commenting on the work. Her farming experience was helpful for some of the challenges, but some of the tasks were completely unfamiliar. Burns couldn’t share details about the show at the time of this interview because the show hasn’t aired yet, but she says it will give people an idea how hard people work in different jobs. “It’s crazy how hard people work!”

Unlike some other reality shows, no one is sent home from the competition, so all 12 contestants participate throughout the season. One contestant is named the overall winner, and others can win additional prizes in team competitions throughout the season. The challenges are both physical and mental, and contestants had to communicate and work together to finish the jobs, Burns says.

For each episode, contestants spent two days filming, so Burns isn’t sure what footage will end up appearing on the show. She has to wait along with everyone else for the episodes to air. “It’s going to be interesting how they put it all together,” she notes.

Americans doing their hardworking best

Burns says she spent her time on the show doing her best and just being herself. She’s hoping the show will help viewers appreciate the hard work done by farmers and all the other hardworking Americans represented on the show. She’s also hoping the show will help people realize that women can succeed in tough careers. “Male or female, you can do anything you want to do,” she stresses.

Since “Tough as Nails” is a new show, the response from viewers will determine whether CBS continues it for a second season. Ohio viewers will likely play an important part in determining if the show is continued, she adds. The state has the highest viewing rate for reality shows in the world, according to show producers.

Now that filming has ended, Burns has returned to the everyday challenges of farming. However, she has scaled back on the bale tossing and heavy lifting for the time being. She and husband Ron have another big challenge to prepare for, she explains. They’re expecting their first baby in November.

Keck writes from Raymond, Ohio.

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