Minnesota’s ‘Millennial Farmer’ is YouTube star

Minnesota’s most famous farmer is used to being recognized by strangers in public. But on Zach Johnson’s recent trip to Las Vegas, that only happened a few times.

“It wasn’t too bad. I think part of it is you’re wearing your mask half the time,” said Johnson, a western Minnesota corn and soybean farmer better known as name “Millennial Farmer” on YouTube. “The only place it can get overwhelming is at an agricultural show or agricultural show.”

Johnson, who farms 2,600 acres with his father near the town of Lowry, is closing in on 900,000 subscribers on the hugely popular video-sharing and social media site. His most viewed video, “Tractor Stuck in the MUD”, has over 3.7 million views.

With over 400 short videos, he is an undisputed star of what YouTube has dubbed “FarmTube”. It has a logo and theme music, branched out into podcasts and public speaking, paid sponsorships, and a line of Millennial Farmer products.

“I don’t think Zach or I in a million years would have guessed that would turn into what he did,” said Becky Johnson, Zach’s wife and partner in the business. “We both grew up poor in rural Minnesota.”

The idea of ​​a famous farmer seems a bit absurd, given the popular and humble nature of the profession. Charles Ingalls, the patriarch of “Little House on the Prairie”, could qualify for the Minnesota title. His brief stint farming near Walnut Grove in the late 1870s was later popularized in a series of books and a long-running television show.

Johnson’s family, Swedish immigrants, began farming their land around the same time. But this fifth-generation farmer’s path to fame has a distinctly 21st-century flavor.

“I started this video because I’m concerned about the disconnect between farmers and consumers,” Johnson said in his first YouTube video, which has been viewed nearly 195,000 times.

The hundreds of videos that followed, most around 20 minutes in length, follow Johnson as he performs nearly every task imaginable related to large-scale farming and use and maintenance. heavy farm machinery – usually with Johnson handling the GoPro camera himself.

He will sometimes visit other farms, occasionally speak on current agricultural issues and, rarely, he will risk a political opinion. Although, he pointed out, he mostly avoids politics.

Playful and often irreverent, Johnson interacts with a rotating cast of characters that includes Becky (“Mrs. Millennial Farmer”) and their children, her father, Nate, and Farmer Jim, other regulars, guest stars and pets. . Many clips feature lighthearted moments of farm life and bits of goofy humor.

“Stop looking at us, swans! Johnson shouted to a nearby herd in a video, as he and Becky drove through a field in their tractor, en route to watch a sunset.

With this simple formula, Johnson rose to the top of YouTube’s farm-focused programming. “I’ve done some research that suggests he’s the most-watched farming personality on the site,” said Brendan Gahan, partner and social director at New York advertising firm Mekanism.

Johnson’s subscriber count is dwarfed by YouTube’s biggest celebrities, but Gahan said that still qualifies him as a “breakthrough star”. About 29,000 YouTube personalities have surpassed one million subscribers, putting Johnson – who is now approaching that stratum – in an elite class on a website with global reach.

A 2020 report titled “Welcome to FarmTube,” prepared by YouTube’s head of culture and trends for the United States and Canada, highlighted Johnson’s success.

It was also lucrative. Although he declined to reveal earnings details related to millennial farmers, Johnson said he now earns more each year as a YouTuber than in farming.

This includes a chunk of revenue from ads run by YouTube during his videos and personal sponsorship deals with various agriculture-related businesses, as well as Millennial Farmer-branded t-shirts and caps, beer and coffee cozies. other promotional items. The merchandise, Johnson said, “really took off.”

Becky Johnson, who previously offered child care, now works full-time at Millennial Farmer. She manages the money and edits all the videos. “Pretty much every day I watch some kind of video tutorial on a new technique,” ​​she said.

Zach and Becky met when they were high school students in nearby towns and married in 2007. They have three children, ages 6 to 12, and they adopted Becky’s niece, now 20, there. several years old. They live on the farm where Zach grew up.

Emily Krekelberg, a University of Minnesota extension educator who co-hosts a farm-based podcast called “The Moos Room,” said she thought Johnson’s online alias was a stroke of genius. .

“A lot of people hear a farmer, they imagine an old man in overalls and a dirty baseball cap,” said Krekelberg, who doesn’t know Johnson but follows his work. “He brings that younger perspective – you can see what farming is like for younger generations. And he has a personality that shines through.”

Gahan, the social media expert, said YouTube’s breakthrough stars typically develop “parasocial bonds” with their audience, creating “feelings akin to true friendship. It lets you into a world that’s both unique within its framework but also authentic”.

The millennial farmer is not a character, Johnson said, and his friends and family agree. A recent video revealed his difficult battle with COVID. Johnson said in an interview that he was unvaccinated but was now considering getting vaccinated because the disease was so bad.

Nate Johnson said his son never showed any interest in performing, but one of his son’s teachers once told him, “This kid will be on Saturday Night Live one day.”

Johnson knew it was possible to make money on YouTube, but said he never thought videos would be more than a hobby. But in September 2017, one of his videos caught on.

“I just turned on the GoPro and talked for about 17 minutes, just showed a few combines we were working on, other things we were working on, talked about what was going on . I didn’t even think it was that great clip,” Johnson said. “But it just took off like crazy.”

As unexpected as they’ve found success, the Johnsons know it might as well go away. “YouTube might change an algorithm and that might be it,” Becky said.

Zach Johnson hopes to squeeze at least a few more years out of his current formula, but he sees a time when he’s making videos less frequently.

“I kinda struggle with the idea that, you know, I’m a farmer, that’s what I am, that’s what I want to be, that’s what I hope to be forever. “, Johnson said. “But in reality, we spend just as much time, if not more, in the world of social media. I’m trying to figure out how to balance that exactly.”

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