Vermont duck farmer Morgan Gold managed to stay in the black in 2019, when the nation’s farm debt reached a record high of $415 billion and family farm bankruptcies rose by nearly 20 percent from the previous year. He says one factor made the difference between him breaking even or going into the hole—YouTube. Since 2018, Gold has regularly posted footage of his farm on the video-sharing platform.
“YouTube is a positive,” he told Civil Eats. “When I did all my final expenses, my net profit for 2019 was $600.”
That amount may seem paltry, but during a period described as the worst “agricultural downturn in a generation,” one that’s seen a bankruptcy rate of about 2.95 per 10,000 farms, ending the year without falling into the red stands out. In 2017, fewer than half of farms had positive net cash income, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent census.
By documenting life at Gold Shaw Farm—be it feeding ducks in the winter, training a guard puppy, or improving the farm’s infrastructure—Gold has attracted more than 68,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel. To put this into perspective, getting just 1,000 subscribers is considered a milestone on the platform, and bonafide YouTube “stars” have millions of subscribers. Accruing a significant following on YouTube helped Gold earn a couple of thousand dollars monthly in YouTube ad revenue during 2019’s final quarter, he said.
Gold is a relative newcomer; he didn’t grow up in a farming family and bought his 162-acre operation in 2016. He’s considering buying a tractor, a move he finds intimidating. But the duck farmer says that his inexperience as a farmer has endeared him to viewers who enjoy learning along with him.
“I’m not an expert,” Gold said. “I’m not coming from a family farm where I’ve been doing this from a little boy and I know everything, but I think that’s what makes [my videos] accessible.”
YouTubers generally make money when their subscribers watch ads, by selling services or goods directly to viewers, or even by licensing viral content to news media. Some of the most successful YouTubers make extra money by linking to their own websites to sell products directly to viewers, affiliate pages on Amazon or elsewhere, and posting sponsored or promotional videos paid for by agribusiness companies, among other methods. For Gold, in addition to ad revenue, “YouTube has created a market for me to sell our geese, ducks, and hatching eggs to,” he explained.
That his agriculture channel has drawn a sizable audience on the platform is by no means an anomaly. Farming content has emerged as some of the most popular on the site, YouTube representatives told Civil Eats. Since October 2017, YouTube reports that the annual increase in uploads of farming-related videos has risen at a yearly rate that’s more than twice that of cosmetic-related videos. The platform has seen a 61 percent spike in farming video uploads, and a 69 percent increase in views of those videos.
In other words, more YouTubers have been posting agricultural content, and more viewers have been clicking on it. Over the past year in particular, farming content has spread rapidly on the site, according to Madeline Buxton, a YouTube culture and trends manager who spoke about the phenomenon at the Farmer2Farmer conference in Nebraska in December.
“We started seeing a ton of farming channels at the end of 2018, start of 2019,” Buxton told Civil Eats. “It’s hard to pinpoint an exact reason, but one of our thoughts is that we see a lot of content [for viewers] looking to engage in and show different lifestyles, one that might be an aspirational lifestyle. A lot of people wish they lived in a rural community, so for them, this is aspirational. They want to live on a farm. They want to learn, and this could be from farmers whose families have been doing this for years or from people who have made the move from the city to the country to become farmers.”
As with all videos on YouTube, the platform’s farming content runs the gamut—from urban farmers offering lessons on farming in small city plots to large-scale conventional farmers showing off their high-tech equipment and promoting their industries in a way that pushes back against those critical of the larger agriculture industry. Sustainable farming is also a focus, with a variety of YouTubers posting videos related to regenerative and organic farming techniques.
“Farmers are using YouTube to promote specific sustainable practices, like organic pest management, soil health practices, permaculture philosophy,” said Jessica Manly, communications director for the National Young Farmers Coalition. “That said, all types of farmers seem to be utilizing the platform; some of the most popular accounts are young, larger-scale or conventional farmers.”
While Gold, 39, and other farmers say that YouTube is a great way to supplement their income, they also point out the challenges of developing a channel on the site. Succeeding on YouTube takes practice, patience, and persistence, they say. Editing footage to upload on the site may take 10 to 15 hours a week, and it’s not always easy to predict which videos will do well and which ones will flop. Also, changes to YouTube’s algorithms may cause the amount of money content creators earn to fluctuate. But farmers with the storytelling skills to connect with viewers worldwide can grow large enough audiences to become “influencers.”
Manly told Civil Eats that National Young Farmers Coalition members post to YouTube for a variety of reasons, including to develop their brands, educate the public, or even to get emotional support from fellow farmers.
“Many of the young farmers and ranchers in our network are leveraging YouTube and other social media platforms to market their products directly to their consumers, to share learnings and experiences with other farmers, to raise awareness about specific growing practices, or to bust myths about the farming lifestyle,” she said. “For many rural farmers, being active online can also be a way to stave off a feeling of isolation, and to gather support and a sense of real community from followers.”
Ties with Industry
For Matthew Sligar, whose YouTube channel Rice Farming TV has more than 34,000 subscribers, establishing a presence on the video-sharing site has helped him dispel some of the public’s misconceptions about rice farmers. Mainly, viewers are surprised to learn that his 1,200-acre rice farm is in the northern end of California’s Central Valley.
“A lot of them don’t know rice is grown in California,” he said.
Sligar, 37, began uploading content to YouTube three years ago, and his posts include videos about agricultural equipment, such as drones, tractors, trucks, and planes; how-tos about growing rice in the desert, flooding farm fields as part of the rice-growing process, and even a visit to Capitol Hill to advocate for farmers. He also films the occasional “joke” video, like one in which he filled a field with Rice Krispie treats and discussed his experience as a “Rice Krispie treat farmer.” While that video only netted about 18,000 views on YouTube; it went viral on Facebook, garnering more than 200,000 views, according to Sligar.
“I like storytelling,” Sligar explained of his fondness for video uploads. “I like the visuals that are very unique.” The farm is close to the Sutter Buttes, deemed the world’s smallest mountain range, tucked in between California’s Coast Range and the Sierra Nevadas. “We have beautiful birds and wildlife out here that I like to show along with some of the tractors and other equipment that are unique to the rice industry,” Sligar added.
Sligar said that in YouTube ad revenue alone, he has earned as little as $200 and as much as $800 monthly.
Being on the platform has also allowed him to widen the customer base for the rice he sells. Even so, he cautions farmers interested in becoming YouTubers to drop the idea that the platform will make them wealthy. Some farmers, such as Zach Johnson, known as the “Millennial Farmer,” who has more than 431,000 YouTube subscribers, have said they make significantly more money from the video-sharing platform than they do farming. However, that’s not likely to be the case for the average YouTuber, Sligar warns.
“I would be skeptical of a headline that says farmers make more on YouTube than they do farming,” he continued. “It’s really sexy, but I would be skeptical if that was actually accurate. That applies to the most popular YouTube farmers on the platform right now, and not everyone can be the most popular.”
Personally, Sligar said that he could earn more money from YouTube if he posted at least three times per week, but because it takes him more than 10 hours to edit his videos, and he has a young family, he simply doesn’t have the time to post more frequently.
Sharing videos about his farm makes the third-generation rice farmer, feel as if he’s contributing to the larger conversation about U.S. agriculture.
“I feel like it’s a story that needs to be shared, because if farmers aren’t telling their story of how food is grown, someone else might be,” he said. “It might be a politician, a dietary book author, a daytime TV talk host, or something like that, and their motivations, in my experience, tend to be based on fear or to sell a book or magazine or get people to vote a certain way.”
In an era when agriculture is inherently political, and books and media outlets—from Food, Inc. to The Omnivore’s Dilemma to more recent work by outlets ranging from The New York Times to NPR—have dug into the challenges associated with the highly consolidated industry, Big Ag is also benefiting from having a whole new generation, including Sligar and Zach Johnson, as spokespeople.
While the two factors—young, tech-savvy farmers who are interested in building their personal brands and an industry in need of a brand overhaul—may have come together by coincidence, Anna Lappé, founder Real Food Media and co-author of Spinning Food (and Civil Eats’ advisory board member) says it’s worth keeping in mind the larger implications of the resulting products, which often shine a positive light on conventional, status-quo food production.
“In an age of constricting newsrooms and disappearing rural newspapers, social media—YouTube, Twitter, Facebook—are becoming increasingly important sources of news, storytelling, and information, but they’re also increasingly being used as vehicles for messaging and public relations by industries selling products, practices, and worldviews—often without industry fingerprints,” says Lappé.
For instance, Johnson’s Millennial Farmer website prominently includes a “Sponsorship Opportunities” page, with audience demographics and customer testimonials from past promotional campaigns.
And while Sligar told Civil Eats he doesn’t get paid by the California Rice Commission, the industry group does feature Rice Farming TV on the front page of their public outreach website, and it awarded Sligar its “Circle of Life” award for his work in 2018.
Growing a YouTube Following
With more than 223,000 subscribers, Jessica Sowards of Roots and Refuge Farm in central Arkansas is a YouTube pro. It’s an accomplishment the mother of five has made after she began to routinely post videos on the site in 2018, though she uploaded her first video three years earlier. Like Gold, Sowards did not grow up in a farming family, but became interested in agriculture as an adult. Today, she and her family are primarily homesteaders, working on a seven-acre plot of land 45 minutes north of Little Rock. While in the past they have sold produce at farmers’ markets in the area, they’re currently mostly selling started plants and working on long-term plans to grow their operation into a full production farm. She says her previous career as a photographer has given her an edge on YouTube.
“I think it’s helped me to understand very simple flattering angles and good light,” said Sowards, 34. “I didn’t make as many of the newbie mistakes. I understand composition. There are definitely some photography skills that carry over to video. There’s lots of editing, and it’s a very different kind of process, but I’m familiar with it.”
Sowards’s photography background may have made her videos look more appealing to viewers, but she also credits her specific interest in heirloom vegetables with drawing devoted followers to her channel. Elsewhere, she’d seen people’s eyes glaze over when she discussed these plants, but on YouTube, she found a like-minded crowd.
“People started watching these crazy videos, and my subscribers grew from 1,000 to 30,000 people in six months,” she said. “It was because of this part of me that was geeky and obsessive over heirloom varieties. I just found my people who are also geeky and obsessive about them and had been making [other] people’s eyes glaze over as well.”
In addition to the U.S., most of her audience comes from Australia, the U.K., and South America, regions where growing zones are comparable to the Southern U.S., Sowards explained. “People can grow along with us in those places,” she said.
Sowards uploads a range of video types on her channel—from teaching videos and confessional vlogs to showing what life is like on a farm. She also posts devotional content. Rather than just giving viewers a look at Roots and Refuge, they have the opportunity to see the various facets of her life, be it motherhood or her religious beliefs. Although her follower count grew exponentially in just six months, farmers such as Gold and Sligar warn would-be YouTubers that developing a following typically takes time.
Gold said that he only acquired 5,000 subscribers after six months of regular YouTube uploads. Rather than get discouraged, he persevered.
“It’s really hard,” he said. “But you have to get used to being consistent, and then you get into a rhythm. A lot of people get frustrated early on, but they have to put in the work to see a return on the investment. By the end of 2018, I had about 1,000 subscribers, and by the end of 2019, I had well over 50,000.”
Being one of the rare farming YouTubers to garner more than 200,000 subscribers has helped Sowards financially, she said. She didn’t share how much she makes from the platform, but acknowledged that the revenue she’s accrued from YouTube and social media sites such as Instagram, where she also posts regularly, has allowed her to expand her farm and complete projects on it. Being a YouTube influencer has also led to prestigious speaking gigs, such as the Homesteaders of America conference, where she spoke last year. Still, Sowards said that she keeps her YouTube success in perspective.
“It’s not a career,” she said. “It’s a window of opportunity. I don’t expect this to be something we will retire doing, but it has been a huge blessing.”
All three farmers interviewed by Civil Eats also stressed how important it is not to go on YouTube specifically to make money. Learning what makes them unique, developing an authentic social media presence, and connecting with viewers will lead to more success, they said. It’s a message that YouTube’s Madeline Buxton echoed.
“If you look at someone like Millennial Farmer Zach Johnson, he has a level of authenticity and real connection,” she said. “He’s taking people along on his daily life and showing them what it’s like to work full time on a farm and showing them their real selves.”
Authenticity is paramount because people are watching agricultural videos on YouTube largely because of their concerns about food production, Sowards said.
“People have to eat, and our food system is very broken, and that’s coming to light,” she said. “People are no longer satisfied with the status quo and why things are the way they are. Our health issues are being illuminated and our agriculture issues are being illuminated. We no longer have a system of neighboring farms, so where do 30-year-olds go when they have a question about agriculture? They go to the Internet.”
Top photo: YouTube Farmers, from left: Zach Johnson, Meredith Barnard, Nick Welker, Ryan Kester, and Tony Fast. (Photo courtesy of YouTube)