“We’re going to be hauling some grass and some alfalfa bales today,” Cole Sonne cheerfully tells the camera as he drives a tractor over the bumps of his family’s farm in South Dakota. And for the next 12 minutes, the video will show Sonne and his dad do just that, carefully moving hundreds of the bundles, each as tall as a person, across their property. The sun shines down on the farm’s lush grass, peaceful music plays in the background—the effect is soothing. The work, though, is monotonous. It wouldn’t be unfair to call it boring.
Sonne’s fans love it: The bale-hauling video has been viewed over 100,000 times on YouTube since it was posted in July. Sonne is a college student, and works on the same land that his grandfather did with his uncle and father. Last year, he started a YouTube channel dedicated to the farm, which has since amassed over 30,000 followers. “A lot of times when people hear about what I do or I tell them, they get a dumbfounded look and ask, ‘People watch that?’” says Sonne, who earned roughly $650 from YouTube advertisements last month.
YouTube is home to influencers from nearly every professional and cultural niche, from crystal healers to fast food connoisseurs, and farming is predictably no exception. In fact, agrarian content is growing: Creators uploaded 61 percent more farming-related videos to YouTube this year than the one before, and views on farming content are up 69 percent, according to Madeline Buxton, a culture and trends manager at the company. Buxton traveled to Nebraska last week to give a keynote presentation about the phenomenon at the annual Farmer2Farmer conference, an industry event put on by the Farmers Business Network.
It’s not an easy time to be an American farmer. The number of farms in the US is declining, according to the Department of Agriculture, as consolidation makes big operations even bigger. In 2017, the most recent year for the USDA’s industry census, the average farm income was just $43,053, and less than half of farms reported positive net cash. The price of commodities like corn, wheat, and milk have fallen, making it harder to turn a profit. Extreme weather, like this year’s devastating floods in the midwest, puts additional pressure on farms. Many have also been negatively impacted by the US trade war with China.
“The weather still dictates a huge amount of our lives, input costs have skyrocketed, meaning most of us live under a mountain of debt that we hope we can make the payments on every year,” says Zach Johnson, a fifth-generation farmer whose channel Millennial Farmer has nearly 400,000 subscribers.
On YouTube, though, the picture is sometimes much rosier. There, farming can seem more like an aspirational lifestyle choice rather than a precarious livelihood. Buxton says YouTube has seen an influx of new creators who specifically chronicle what it’s like to open a farm after living in a city or working a corporate job. Like #VanLife videos, where creators share how they abandoned the mainstream to live on the road, farming content serves as a how-to guide to an alternative way of living.
Americans have been romanticizing farmers since the Founding Fathers. Even today, while the vast majority of Americans live in urban areas, most still say they want to live in a rural place, according to a Gallup poll. Farming YouTube offers the chance to experience a way of life that’s often idealized, but practically inaccessible to most people. “It’s like their dream,” says Becky G., who runs the channel White House on the Hill with her husband Jake on their farm in Missouri. (It’s not just the US, either. In China, where YouTube is banned, farmers like Liu Mama have found massive audiences on the social media platform Kuaishou, where they document the rural life that millions of Chinese left behind when they moved to larger cities.)
Jake and Becky, who asked that only the first initial of their last name be used to protect their privacy, have over 400,00 subscribers, a large enough audience to turn YouTube into their main source of income. Some of their most popular videos revolve around their livestock, which isn’t surprising—animal videos have powered the internet’s content machinery for decades. But that enduring appeal can make some situations tricky to navigate for farmers. “The animal lovers don’t want to see anything happen to the animals. That’s been a tricky balance,” Jake says.
Many farmers who spoke to WIRED said that YouTube presented an opportunity to educate people about how their profession really works. “I started uploading to YouTube in the spring of 2016 because I had concerns about how farmers were being portrayed to the non-farming consumers in this country,” says Johnson. “My intentions were and still are to be a voice for the American farmer and show the reality of who we are.”
That often means teaching people about where their food comes from—including butchering animals. YouTube’s Community Guidelines forbid videos containing violent or graphic content, but farmers do show aspects of their work that are messy and potentially uncomfortable. Sonne, for instance, uploaded a video of cows being vaccinated, which included a rectal exam of a heifer. Eric Weaver, a Pennsylvania dairy farmer, posted one of his cows undergoing genomic testing. “There’s a lot of negative talk about dairy farming out there, so I figured I would just show the reality of what we do here,” says Weaver, whose channel 10th Generation Dairyman has over 120,000 subscribers. “I think the majority of society just appreciates transparency even if we aren’t perfect.”
For many farm creators, YouTube isn’t just an educational outlet, but an important source of revenue. “At this point, if I’m going to look back at my books at the end of 2019, I will have definitely made more money on YouTube than the farm, which is kind of ironic. I never would have expected it would play out that way,” says Morgan Gold, who started Gold Shaw Farm in Vermont with his wife Allison Ebrahimi-Gold three years ago. He started his YouTube channel around the same time. Now it has over 56,000 followers and generates between $2,000 and $3,000 in advertising per month, money he has poured into repairing an old barn on his property.
Gold’s foray into YouTube has been so successful, it’s shaping his business strategy on the farm as well. “I’m rethinking my farm products and what I’m raising because what I’ve noticed is that I’ve got such a broad, diverse audience that isn’t close by,” he says. He’s considering new goods, like charcuterie, that could be easily shipped to fans in other states.
Advertising revenue from YouTube has become an important lifeline for some farmers, but it’s still a precarious one. Curtis Stone, a former farmer who transitioned to producing content about the profession online, amassed over 338,000 YouTube subscribers, but says he was hurt by policy changes the company made in 2017 that resulted in many channels being demonetized, or blocked from earning ad revenue. The “Adpocalypse,” as it came to be known, occurred after a series of media reports revealed that prominent advertisers were showing up alongside videos containing hate speech and extremist content. YouTube’s changes affected a wide range of creators on the platform, and caused widespread panic and outrage.
Stone says he doesn’t know why his channel may have been affected. “My income from YouTube split into at least a third or into a sixth when that happened,” he says. “To be a YouTuber on your own, you kind of pigeonhole yourself. You make yourself vulnerable if they change an algorithm.” While Stone continues to upload to YouTube, he now also runs an independent membership site where people pay a subscription to view his videos.
Even beyond the diminishing returns, Stone says he became disillusioned with how much of YouTube had become clickbaity and formulaic. The most successful farming videos, he says, have outrageous titles and thumbnail images, and often don’t provide any practical information to viewers about growing food. To be successful, “you have to be Casey Neistat on a farm, basically,” says Stone, referencing the YouTube star known for outlandish stunts.
In some ways, the rise of farming YouTube is surprising. Its creators have to navigate a uniquely paradoxical set of ideals. Many say they intentionally sought out simple lifestyles devoid of modern hassles, only to realize they could earn more becoming online stars than by growing crops and raising animals. Running the White House on the Hill channel on YouTube, Jake says, is a way to make money, “but we honestly love just living in peace.”
“Our dream,” he adds, “would just be to disappear and be on our own in the country.”
The pressure to constantly entertain is one that many online creators will find familiar, though most don’t need to juggle editing videos with feeding livestock and plowing fields. YouTube has brought many farmers a new set of responsibilities and headaches, but also the opportunity to document a lifestyle that’s historically been solitary. Broadcasting to tens of thousands of people from his farm in Vermont, Gold says, “I find that my life right now is more connected to people than when I was living in New York City or Washington, DC, or any of those times in my life, by far.”
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