Talk of good nutrition is everywhere these days, yet many Americans still don’t know where their food comes from. According to a 2018 poll by Michigan State University, much of the country remains disengaged or misinformed about the food system. This is a big problem since agriculture plays a major role in the lives of anyone who eats – aka, everyone.
Farm and ranch families comprise less than 2% of the overall U.S. population, yet one farm feeds 166 people annually both domestically and abroad, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. Despite the negative picture some media tries to portray about commercial agriculture, the USDA reports 98% of U.S. farms are operated by families.
A new generation of young farmers is aiming to change how people view the industry, using social media channels such as YouTube and Instagram to share their farm story. One video and post at a time, they’re working toward a greater goal of educating the country on where their food comes from and painting a truer picture of American agriculture. Take a look.
Zach Johnson: An Unexpected YouTube Phenomenon
Zach Johnson (aka Millennial Farmer), a fifth-generation farmer outside Lowry, Minnesota, began his YouTube channel in 2016. He had no intention of growing it into what it has evolved into today: a full-blown business, with videos pushing a million views and lucrative sponsor partnerships.
“I had friends and family who grew up in rural areas and should have understood a little about farming and agriculture, but they didn’t,” he says. “I’d seen so many articles about what farming was doing wrong – like making poor decisions with pesticides, GMOs, drain tiles – so I decided to show [people] what actually goes on at a farm.”
Johnson’s great-great-grandfather immigrated to the U.S. from Sweden in 1876 and began farming in Lowry. His father grew up in southern Minnesota before moving back to the area to farm after graduation. Today, Johnson, his wife, Becky, and three young children (ages 4, 7 and 9) live in the farmhouse and raise corn and soybeans; his dad is still involved in the farming, too.
Posting videos to YouTube and keeping up with social media (Instagram and Facebook) is time-consuming and difficult to balance with the workload the farm requires. But to Johnson, it’s equally important.
“A lot of people believe that farmers are just in it for profit,” he says. “The fact is, if we don’t take care of our land and make smart choices, we’re not going to be in business. There’s nobody who could care more about the water and land in my community than me.”
See more: Millennials: The Future of Farming
Becky helps immensely with the videos, especially September through December when Johnson’s in full-on harvest mode. “The only thing I can do is just carry the camera with me, and she will be editing,” he says. Both Johnson and his wife are self-taught in video editing, starting out using YouTube to learn the basics and then progressing to the more advanced Sony Movie Studio Platinum.
For the most part, Johnson says feedback on his channels is overwhelmingly positive. Viewers who are farmers are excited to see what he’s doing, while non-farmers are happy to learn and watch to see what a real farm family is like. “We’re still proud family farmers doing what we’ve always done,” says Johnson, “not a picture of large industrial farming like some believe it to be right now.”
Emile Guedon: Taking Ownership via Instagram
About 1,200 miles south of the Johnsons is Guedon Farms, which started back in 1861 near Natchez, Mississippi. Emile Guedon is a sixth-generation farmer raising mostly soybeans alongside his grandfather, his dad and uncle, and his two brothers. “We are a true family farm,” he says.
Guedon regularly shares about life on the farm on Instagram (@guedonfarms), from harvesting to planting to drone shots, both because he enjoys it and wants to tell people around the world what the industry is all about.
“I don’t think agriculture does a very good job of telling our story, especially in America,” he says. “Farmers haven’t been good advocates of what we’re doing, and I take ownership of that.”
Video by video, he’s aiming to change this. While he has a big laugh and a keen sense of humor in person, Guedon doesn’t bring that side of things to his account. “I’m more focused on being educational and informational,” he says. For example, he gets many questions from his followers about tools, equipment and general agricultural practices. He’s happy to answer all of these, plus inquiries about other crops they raise, from corn and cotton to wheat, millet and seed oats (his grandfather also grows 10 acres of watermelon, just for fun).
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It’s not always about a success story; Guedon says it’s important to show the less pleasant sides of farming, too. For example, this summer he posted an image of a tractor stuck deep in the mud – which he was responsible for. “It’s a little thing to say, ‘hey, I messed up,’” he says. “I’m trying to teach my [crew] that you don’t have to shift blame to someone else. You are responsible for what you do.”
Farmers have a greater responsibility than many people realize. “We’re helping to feed the world – that’s literally what’s happening,” says Guedon. “We raise more corn, soybeans and wheat than Americans can consume, and we do it cheaper than anyone else – that’s why we can ship it [around the world], not only for people but animals [that people eat], too.”
Guedon points out that there is a big disconnect between the consumer and producer when it comes to food. At the most basic level, he’s trying to bridge that gap with his Instagram page: “with good information, not biased, straight from the source,” he says.
Suzanne Cook: Relying on Subscribers as Resources
Suzanne Cook and her boyfriend, Eric Zandstra, were living in a development in Michigan when they decided to move to the country. Both had grandparents who’d been farmers, but the tradition hadn’t been passed down to their generation. They found the perfect plot of land, 87 acres near the town of Sand Lake. The land had plenty of space for a horse to graze – but no house, barn, electricity or water.
While Zandstra had a full-time job off the farm, Cook took the lead on raising hay – with no experience in farming whatsoever. She made a lot of mistakes, she says, and wrote about them in a memoir. But when she approached publishers about selling the book, they told her people weren’t interested in hearing about farming. “I thought, that can’t be right,” she says. “I wanted to try a YouTube channel to get real feedback and hear if people were really interested in agriculture.”
So in summer 2017, she launched WT Farm Girl on YouTube, chronicling her successes and challenges with hay and making maple syrup from about 100 trees growing on the property. The channel has grown organically to nearly 45,000 subscribers in two years, now serving as Cook’s chief source of income. With slow internet speed on the farm, she drives seven minutes to a local library to upload each video.
Many of her subscribers are old-time farmers, and some know nothing about farming but are eager to learn. They’ve enabled Cook to sell her maple syrup online, in addition to setting up at farmer’s markets. Yet one of the biggest benefits of WT Farm Girl has been personal, she says.
“Getting feedback and ideas has been really valuable for me as a new farmer, because [my subscribers] think of things I never would have thought of,” says Cook. For example, she recently posted a video of a problem she was having with her hay cutter. Her followers came through, suggesting ideas on what might be happening, and ultimately, she was able to find a solution.
Like Guedon, Cook is also one to make light of her failures, hoping they help others to grow, too. “If I’m failing, people say, ‘oh yeah, I did that too and I’ve been farming for 30 years,’” she says. “We don’t have a community like that out here where I live, so that’s been really beneficial for me.”