Farmer Zach Johnson is smart, funny and just as comfortable posing for photos with his many fans as a sports star.
But he’s not famous because he makes millions of dollars scoring points through the goal posts.
His claim to fame is being an ordinary farmer — just a regular guy who makes his living growing ingredients for foods people eat.
Video of a combine in action is hardly the stuff of death-defying stunts or thriller-chiller movies, yet Johnson has had upward of 83 million views on his YouTube channel since he started producing home videos and posting them in 2016.
It turns out being a real farmer in an era when less than two per cent of the population grows the food we eat makes his take on things pretty interesting — and lucrative. U.S. media reports say he now harvests more revenue from his YouTube channel than he does from his Minnesota fields.
Johnson, known as the Millennial Farmer, decided to put himself out there because he was frustrated by how farmers and farming practices are often characterized by non-farmers.
He wanted to tell his own story in his own homespun way.
His first video effort attracted 600 views and it’s been growing ever since. Now when he puts out a video he might reach 400,000. He’s now frequently invited to farm conferences to help other farmers learn about outreach.
Judging by the standing-room only turnout for his session at the recent CropConnect 2020, there are lots of farmers out there who want to know his secret to successful dialogue with non-farmers.
In Canada, we have full-blown campaigns sponsored by industry organizations and governments designed to help farmers tell their side of the story.
Feb. 11 was Canada Agriculture Day with events across the country designed to celebrate what farmers do. Feb. 8 was Food Freedom Day — the point in the year when the average Canadian family had earned enough to pay for their annual food bill.
Johnson doesn’t have any big secrets to share — except to say that he doesn’t worry too much about taking sides.
In fact, most of his videos don’t even talk about the “serious” stuff. They are specifically targeted at letting people see who he is as a person, how and why he does what he does on the farm.
“Then we get to planting GMOs, we get to using pesticides and we get to installing drain tile, then I can talk about why we’ve made that decision on our farm as a management practice and it will hold more weight because the people see somebody that they’ve gotten to trust and somebody they’ve gotten to know talking about why we make the decisions that we do.”
Farmers are capable like never before in history to connect with consumers through social media channels, he said.
He’s not concerned that surveys show upwards of 60 per cent of his viewers are people already engaged in agriculture. The other 40 per cent still represents a lot of people. “ Where else can you reach that amount of people so efficiently?”
He encourages other farmers to follow his lead and reach out. All too often, he sees farmers talking amongst themselves about how consumers don’t understand them, “and you kind of get stuck in your own echo chamber.”
“Farmers have this massive opportunity right now to try and connect to people because there are people out there who are willing to listen and want to learn from us,” he said.
Johnson accepts that some will never be convinced of the merits of modern farming practices. Angry Twitter exchanges won’t change that.
“I don’t think anybody has ever argued their way to winning,” he said. “That’s just not how you communicate with people…. arguing back and forth doesn’t solve the problem.”
From his experience, the vast majority of consumers are simply curious and confused by the “conflictions” in the information they’re getting.
“The number one thing I’ve learned about non-farmers is the majority of them really are interested in hearing what it is we have to say.”