Zach Johnson, 34, is used to talking into a camera held in one hand as the other helps direct his nearly 400,000 YouTube subscribers around the farm.
This time he holds up the lens as he steps off a John Deere tractor into an open field. "We are down to our last 350 acres of soybeans to put in, our corn is all in, but right now we've got a 9560 John Deere — it's an RT Model, like that," Johnson says, pointing to the one behind him, "but a bigger frame, that's an 8360 — and Jim is stuck."
Johnson's "Tractor Stuck in the MUD" video has garnered over 1.6 million views (his most viewed video yet) since he uploaded it in early June, but it's just another day in the life of the fifth generation Minnesota farmer — better known on YouTube as MN (Minnesota) Millennial Farmer. He credits this video's popularity to its "good three-act narrative," complete with a setup, a conflict and a resolution.
"That's my theory anyway," Johnson says. "Along the way we laughed with each other and picked on Jim a lot for getting stuck."
"We never got upset or yelled at each other, we just solved the problem," he says. "I think that was a big key to that video."
Johnson spends his days growing corn and soybeans on the family farm where he and his ancestors grew up (his great, great grandfather immigrated from Sweden and started the farm in 1876), but his biggest paycheck stems from his side hustle on YouTube that captures it all.
Johnson declined to comment on actual revenue numbers, but tells CNBC Make It that this year, the MN Millennial Farmer social media brand will make him at least five times more money than his actual crops.
The farmer and now social media influencer never expected to make any money when he uploaded his first farming video three years ago. So how did the hobby become a lucrative success?
The first few videos Johnson created for YouTube launched in April of 2016, capturing the ups and downs of farming in the spring in Minnesota and minor issues experienced while corn planting.
But it wasn't until the fall of 2017, or in farming language, early harvest 2017, when Johnson realized people cared to hear what he had to say.
Johnson's "Gearing up for Harvest!" video was the first to quickly hit 100,000 views on YouTube in a span of three to four days. Never before had one of his videos racked up so many views in such a short period of time. "I think people were excited to see the combines and see what we were doing as we got close to harvest," Johnson says. "Big machines always bring views."
Once the video started doing well, Johnson signed up his YouTube channel for a Google Adsense account, which matches ads to a user's site based on their content and visitors.
Shortly after, he saw that the viral video earned him $92, and he was blown away.
"At the time, I thought $92 was unbelievable just for filming myself on the farm and talking about what I was doing," Johnson says.
Today, Johnson and his wife and business partner, Becky, have their strategy locked down. And the rewards are bigger than ever.
The MN Millennial Farmer brand now includes YouTube videos, public speaking engagements, farm tours, merchandise and the recent debut of the "Off The Husk" podcast, backed by Farmers Business Network, his biggest sponsor to date.
The majority of brand money comes from two main sources on YouTube: ads and sponsors. Advertisements are a part of Google Adsense and can appear before, after or in the middle of a video. Sponsorships or brand deals include paid product endorsements that appear within a video's content.
Joe Gagliese is the co-founder of Viral Nation, a global influencer marketing and talent agency. He tells CNBC Make It that YouTubers are typically the highest earners of all social media channel influencers, followed closely by Instagram influencers.
Luckily for Johnson, whose videos can last 15 to 20 minutes or longer, brands find more value in long form content, as it tends to create more engaged audiences. Gagliese estimates Johnson probably makes between $2,500 to $5,000 a month from YouTube ads alone.
The sponsors that organically align with Johnson's content also bring in additional revenue. His signature sponsor right now is Farmers Business Network, but other partnerships include, or have included, John Deere, WD-40 (Johnson's very first sponsor), AGCO, J&M Manufacturing, Walls Clothing, Lumax, May Wes Manufacturing and Dakota Micro. Gagliese estimates the sponsorship vertical of MN Millennial Farmer could bring in between $5,000 and $15,000 per branded post. Johnson declined to give a specific amount or a range of his earning potential.
The brand's online merch store sells branded tees, caps and hooded sweatshirts. When it opened last fall, it sold over 2,000 pieces in six days. Since then, Johnson estimates they've sold an additional 2,000 to 3,000 MN Millennial Farmer-branded pieces.
Gagliese says that with Johnson's audience, he wouldn't be surprised if the MN Millennial Farmer brand sold between 1,000 to 2,000 units per month, earning an estimated $3,000 to $6,000 per month.
"Now, he's not an influencer with millions and millions of followers, but what I can tell you is he has unbelievable engagement," Gagliese says. To date, Johnson's YouTube channel has received over 70 million views. "There are some YouTubers who have three million followers who get less views than he does on his videos, which tells us this is someone who has an extremely engaged audience that's super into his content.
"For me, he also represents a very unique vertical," Gagliese says. "He's not just a fitness person, he's not just someone who does jokes — he's a farmer. He's almost created his own niche, and that opens up a huge chunk of brands where there's not a lot of other people playing, which again increases his value."
Unlike many influencers, the Johnsons haven't yet tapped into the agency world to help grow their brand. Instead, most advertisers come to them directly, and the couple decide what opportunities to take on based on time availability and quality control.
Gagliese points out that if the MN Millennial Farmer brand is making much less than what he has predicted, it could be a missed opportunity.
"He's a beautiful example of what influencers should be," Gagliese says. "He's super organic, people love his content."
Gagliese, who grew up on a farm himself, says Johnson's success probably stems from people's curiosity. His videos appeal to the average person unfamiliar with the farming lifestyle.
"I think any time you give people access to a world that they would never be partial to, I think it's interesting and stimulating to people."
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