Minnesota’s most famous farmer is used to being recognized by strangers in public. But on Zach Johnson’s recent trip to Las Vegas, it only happened a handful of times.
“It was not so bad. I think part of that is you’re wearing your mask half the time,” Johnson, a western Minnesota corn and soybean farmer better known as the “Millennial Farmer,” said on YouTube. “The only place it can get overwhelming is at a farm show or agricultural fair.”
Johnson, who farms 2,600 acres near the town of Lowry with his father, is nearing 900,000 followers on the hugely popular video sharing and social media site. His most viewed video “Tractor Stuck in the MUD” has more than 3.7 million views.
With more than 400 short videos, he is an undisputed star of what YouTube calls “FarmTube”. It has a logo and theme music, has expanded into podcasts and public speaking, paid sponsorships and a range of Millennial Farmer merchandise.
“I don’t think in a million years Zach or I would have thought it would become what it did,” said Becky Johnson, Zach’s wife and a partner at the company. “We both grew up poor in rural Minnesota.”
The idea of a famous farmer seems a bit absurd considering the profession is humble from the bottom up. Charles Ingalls, the patriarch of the “Little House on the Prairie,” could qualify for Minnesota’s title. His brief stint farming near Walnut Grove in the late 1870s was later popularized in a book series 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 had a distinct 21st-century impact.
“I started this video because I’m concerned about the disconnect between farmers and consumers,” Johnson said in his first YouTube video, which has since been viewed almost 195,000 times.
The hundreds of videos that followed, most around 20 minutes long, follow Johnson as he performs almost every imaginable task that comes with large-scale arable farming and the use and maintenance of heavy agricultural machinery — usually with Johnson using the GoPro himself -Camera operated.
Sometimes he visits other farms, sometimes he gets involved in current agricultural issues, sometimes he ventures a political opinion. However, he stressed, he largely stays away from politics.
Visually and often irreverently, Johnson interacts with a rotating cast of characters, including Becky (“Mrs. Millennial Farmer”) and her children, his father Nate and farmhand Jim, other regulars, guest stars, and family pets. Many clips show carefree moments of farm life and offbeat humor.
“Stop looking at us, swans!” Johnson yelled at a nearby herd in one video as he and Becky rolled their tractor across a field to watch a sunset.
With this simple formula, Johnson has risen to the forefront of farm-focused YouTube programs. “I’ve done a few searches that suggest he’s the most viewed farm personality on the site,” said Brendan Gahan, partner and chief social officer at New York advertising firm Mekanism.
Johnson’s following count is dwarfed by YouTube’s biggest celebrities, but Gahan said it still qualifies him as a “breakthrough star.” About 29,000 YouTube personalities have surpassed 1 million followers, putting Johnson – who is now approaching that stratum – in an elite class on a site with a global reach.
A 2020 report titled “Welcome to FarmTube,” prepared by YouTube’s culture and trends manager for the US and Canada, highlighted Johnson’s success.
It was also lucrative. While he declined to reveal details of Millennial Farmer’s earnings, Johnson said he now makes more each year as a YouTuber than he does farming.
This includes a portion of revenue from ads YouTube plays during its videos and personal sponsorship deals with various farming businesses, as well as Millennial Farmer-branded t-shirts and hats, beer cozys, and other swag. The merchandise, Johnson said, “really took off.”
Becky Johnson, who used to provide day care services, now works full-time in the Millennial Farmer business. She manages the money and edits all the videos. “Almost every day I watch some kind of tutorial video on a new technique,” she said.
Zach and Becky met as high school students from neighboring towns and married in 2007. They have three children between the ages of 6 and 12 and adopted Becky’s now 20-year-old niece a few years ago. They live in the farmhouse where Zach grew up.
Emily Krekelberg, an educator at the University of Minnesota Extension who hosts an agricultural podcast called “The Moos Room,” said she thinks Johnson’s online alias is a stroke of genius.
“A lot of people hear Farmer picture 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 see what farming is like for the younger generations. And he has a personality that shines through.”
Gahan, the social media expert, said that YouTube’s breakthrough stars typically form “parasocial bonds” with their audience and “create feelings akin to genuine friendship. He lets you into a world that is both unique to its surroundings and authentic.”
The millennial farmer is not a character, Johnson said, and his friends and family agree. A recent video revealed his tough battle with COVID. Johnson said in an interview that he was unvaccinated but was now considering getting the shots because the disease was so bad.
Nate Johnson said his son has never shown any interest in performing, but one of his son’s teachers once told him, “This kid is going to be on Saturday Night Live one day.”
Johnson knew it was possible to make money from YouTube, but said he never thought video 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 showing off some combines we’ve been working on, some other stuff we’ve been working on, talking about what’s going on. I didn’t even think the clip was that great,” Johnson said. “But it just went off like crazy.”
As unexpected as the success was, the Johnsons know it could just as easily disappear. “YouTube might change some algorithms and that might be it,” Becky said.
Zach Johnson is hoping to get at least a few more years out of his current formula, but he’s seeing a time when he’s making videos less frequently.
“I kind of struggle with the idea that I’m a farmer, that’s what I am, that’s what I want to be, that’s what I want to be forever,” Johnson said. “But the reality is that we spend just as much or more time in the social media world. I’m trying to figure out how to balance that exactly.”