It was the spring of 2016 and Zach Johnson, now 34, had grown tired of hearing neighbors, friends and relatives discuss a lack of transparency and sustainability around farming, even if they weren't familiar with agriculture.
Much of the discussion focused on the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Critics debated that the genetic engineering of food had poor effects on the environment and consumer health. The use of tile drains — or pipes installed underneath the crops — was another source of tension, as environmentalists thought the water drained from the pipes could contaminate waterways.
Johnson, in his defense, set out to raise awareness about agricultural issues. He decided to start a YouTube channel to put himself out there and see if anybody would care to watch what he did every day.
Three years later, his nearly 400,000 subscribers and 70 million-plus views on YouTube are earning him at least five times more money than his actual crops.
"I just wanted to try to reach people and say, 'Look, here's what's actually going on: I am an actual family farmer, I am a real farmer, my neighbors are all just like me, we're out here doing the best we can,'" Johnson says.
"'Yes, we use GMOs, we use pesticides, we install drain tiles — and here's why. And then on the days that I'm actually doing those things, I'm not going to hide them from you. Here's why we use them, here's what we're doing, this is our alternative,'" he says. "Really, just show people with complete transparency what we're doing and why we're doing it."
"That's the biggest thing that I want people to know, is that I live out here and I make my livelihood off the soil and water in my area," Johnson says. "The natural resources here affect me more than they affect anybody else, and so we're always trying to take care of what we have."
It was Johnson's wife and high school sweetheart, Becky, who thought building the MN Millennial Farmer YouTube channel into a full-fledged brand was an opportunity they couldn't pass up.
Johnson himself wasn't so sure. "I didn't really take that seriously, I didn't know what that meant, and I didn't really have that interest in it," he says. "I was also concerned about how to keep up with it because I am, after all, a full-time farmer."
After some convincing, the two teamed up to bring the brand to life. Becky manages the advertising, accounting, social media, emails and speaking tours, while he works and films around the farm.
"Really, it was my wife who kind of pushed me and said, You know, for a lot of people this is a legitimate thing that they can make money at this," he says.
Johnson filmed his early videos using a cellphone and an iPad Air 2. He then taught himself everything he knows about video, ironically turning to YouTube's instructional videos to learn how to edit.
He's since graduated to a point-and-shoot Canon G7 X digital camera that he can take with him "in case something interesting happens," but he still keeps his productions simple to keep the focus on the farming.
Johnson and his 60-year-old father are the only two full-time workers on the family farm, which produces corn and soybeans, two crops that in 2018 accounted for over 40% of all U.S. crop cash receipts, according to data by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). But Johnson is up against a tough farming season this year.
"The current farm economy is not very good," he says. "Commodity prices don't make up for the costs involved with raising a crop. However, that isn't an uncommon cycle and I believe the farm would sustain the family in the long run. Bad marketing years are a part of life when it comes to farming."
Though Johnson says the family farm was doing well before MN Millennial Farmer took off and that the brand's launch hasn't really changed the farm at all, the side hustle has definitely helped the family as another income stream. And this year, they depend on it.
"Eventually, the goal is to use the extra YouTube income as our family living expenses, and [we] hope to reinvest the farm income all back into the farm," Johnson says.
Johnson says the money he earned from YouTube in 2018 helped to offset farming losses that year. This year, he expects the MN Millennial Farmer brand will make at least five times what he makes farming, partly because farming conditions and profits have worsened in the last few years.
The median annual wage for farmers, ranchers and other agricultural managers was $67,950 in May 2018, according to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Regarding the job outlook for farmers, the BLS says that, "Over the past several decades, the efficiencies of large-scale crop production have led to the consolidation of acreage under fewer, but larger, farms."
For Johnson, his home state of Minnesota ranks fifth in 2018's top 10 agricultural producing states in terms of cash receipts, according to the USDA.
The changing climate also plays a part in his seasonal corn and soybean growth on the farm. A recent article from AgWeb, the farmer's online source for agriculture news, has AccuWeather reporting that Minnesota is one of three states furthest behind in corn maturity given the cool weather further north.
This year, corn and soybean yields are expected to be at their lowest since 2012 and 2013, respectively. As reported, AccuWeather predicts a 5.3% drop in corn yield and a 7.9% drop in soybean yield this year when compared to 2018.
"It's always very cyclical," Johnson says. "Right now, we're in a pretty good downturn. I would hope that within the next two, three, four years that farming gets good again and that those numbers will be different."
In the meantime, pumping out more videos on YouTube and seeing the success of them and the entire channel has led him to an internal struggle: If he accepts money as an influencer, will he be able to remain rooted in being a strong advocate for the agriculture industry as well?
"One of the ways I justify the income to myself, I guess, is, my wife and I both have put a ton of work into this and we deserve some compensation for our time," Johnson says. "If people are willing to pay us for what we built up, then it justifies our time, and I can continue to be an even bigger voice for the industry."
Johnson says his goal is to branch out and talk to groups of consumers and corporations who are not as involved with farming.
"As we go, there's less and less of us all the time," Johnson says. "It used to be that if you weren't a farmer, you either knew a farmer or your grandpa had a farm or somebody along the lines had a farm somewhere, so you were connected somehow. Now it's gotten to not really be that way.
"There's a lot of people who are two, three, four generations removed from the farm, and they don't understand it, and they don't have a good source for information," he says. "But when you're doing something like growing food for the planet, that's information that people want to know. Who better to tell how it's done than the actual people that work in the dirt every day and do it?"
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