(Bloomberg) -- It’s a sign of the times when farmers make more money advocating for the industry on social media than actually farming.
Zach Johnson, who grows corn and soybeans in Minnesota, is known in YouTube circles as MN Millennial Farmer. It’s a role, he says, that’s provided him and his wife, Becky, about five times more in earnings than he can make on the family farm in the last year.
Johnson, 34, became a video blogger three years ago to advocate for growers and the technology they use. Now, he and Becky have about 300,000 subscribers and 50 million views under their belts. Their experience reflects both the depressed state of the rural economy and growing consumer interest in how food is produced.
“Yes, we use GMOs, we use pesticides, drain tiles and irrigation and there are real reasons why we use those things,” Johnson said in an interview. He describes his role as bringing balance to a discussion often dominated by critics of modern farming practices.
The Johnsons aren’t alone online. In rural communities across the U.S., YouTube, a unit of Google, is the most popular social media with 59% of people using it, according to a Pew Research Center survey in 2018.
Keith Good is the social media manager at the Farmdoc project at the University of Illinois, created to provide online data and analysis that will aid decision-making for farms under risk. Over the last year, he’s seen a dramatic increase in farmers posting more videos on social media.
“Farm organizations and commodity groups have encouraged producers to be part of the conversation on social media,” Good said.
Suzanne Cook, or WT Farm Girl, has racked up nearly 40,000 subscribers documenting her experience as a first-generation farmer, learning and failing in front of the camera.
Cook, who is 37, advocates for more women to get involved in farming. Many of her viewers are just learning about farming, just like her. Only about 10% of her viewers are women, she said, and they aren’t just youngsters.
“For a female, it’s even harder because most guys don’t take you seriously,” she said in a telephone interview. “YouTube has helped me because a lot of my subscribers are encouraging.”
Josh Draper, or Stoney Ridge Farmer, has more than 220,000 subscribers following his journey of building a first-generation cattle farm from an dilapidated tobacco plantation. As a U.S. Air Force veteran, he advocates for more veterans to join farming. He also wants to show that he raises his animals “humanly and with respect.”
Draper decided to start blogging because “a lot of people are getting back to agriculture.” He bought a camera, did some honeybees videos, followed by a video of him sharpening his mower, and “it took off.”
The online videos produced by Zach and Becky Johnson sometimes present their information in the form of husband and wife chats. The subject matter can range from the use of a wide range of new technology to how they harvest their soybean test plot.
“I love agriculture, I love farming," Zach Johnson said. “It’s my whole life, and it’s the life for all of my friends and family."
Like many of the other bloggers, Johnson sells his own merchandise, does public speaking and features endorsements in his videos. That’s helped him generate profit additional to the ones he gains from YouTube ads.
“People have become so disconnected from agriculture," Johnson said. “They’re curious about where their food comes from, and who the people that grow their food are. We have a really good opportunity to talk to people, discuss those things and show them why we do the things that we do.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Denitsa Tsekova in New York at [email protected]
To contact the editors responsible for this story: James Attwood at [email protected], Reg Gale
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.