Carving out a unique brand: 'MN Millennial Farmer' tops 200,000 subscriber mark
Each morning before the sun rises and each night after it sets, fifth-generation farmer Zach Johnson is hard at work. With more than 2,500 acres of soybeans and corn to tend to, the full-time farmer goes through his day-to-day routine each season.
What makes him different from the next farmer is he has a camera in his hands at all times.
Johnson has branded himself as the "MN Millennial Farmer" and holds a media presence that aspiring content creators would dream of having. He has more than 215,000 subscribers on YouTube and 53,000 followers on Instagram.
Johnson lives with his wife and four kids three miles west of Lowry. The farm has been in business for over a century, and he has been the manager of the estate for the past 13 years. He and his dad work full-time while employing one part-time Lowry resident and three to four seasonal workers.
"My goal is to do a good job of managing it. I don't have any set goals, like having 100,000 acres or anything like that," Johnson said. "I just hope I'm a good manager. Hopefully I grow the farm and do it ethically, too. My goal is not to go drive the neighbors out of business. I want to manage a successful farm and get along with everybody while I do it."
Sticking up for farmers
Some of the obstacles facing Johnson have been from people outside the farming community. With recent concerns about how farming could have a negative impact on the environment, farmers are getting backlash for what they are putting into the ground. He strived to take a stand. That's when he became known as the "MN Millennial Farmer."
"I wanted to stick up for farmers," Johnson said passionately. "I've read so much negative stuff on farming. I would never say that everything we do is perfect or that farmers never do anything wrong, but if you're worried about clean water, so am I."
The importance of safe farming can't be overstated. Improper agricultural practices can damage ecosystems. Johnson wants it to be known that what he does is not only safe, but necessary.
"My kids go swimming in the lakes," he said. "We have a well that goes straight down into the water underneath our fields. That's the water that my kids drink. If you're sitting on Lake Lowry and you think I'm poisoning your water, I mean, I'm drinking the water right here. I'm not trying to kill anybody."
Johnson is very passionate in his efforts to justify the work of farmers. His YouTube channel started as a way to educate not only the farming community about what he does and how he does it, but also teach people outside agriculture about the kind of life he leads.
Those who know Johnson knew he had the potential to reach an audience at a young age.
"He has always been the creative one that has taken initiative," his brother, Mitch Johnson, said. "I remember when we were kids and he would say, 'Hey, let's just make a funny video.' With us growing up on the farm it was always us trying to entertain ourselves. We didn't have close neighbors or we couldn't ride our bikes to a friend's house."
Zach Johnson's creative itch carried all the way to the spring of 2016 when he launched his YouTube channel, with modest goals of connecting with other farmers and providing educational videos. Roughly 18 months later, he found out that what he had could be way more.
The channel blows up
Johnson took a calculated approach to his self-branding. By calling himself the "MN Millennial Farmer," he automatically garnered attention.
"The term millennial is like a buzzword. Everybody cares about what millennials are doing. Companies want to know about millennials to know what they're buying and how to market for them in the future," he said.
"When you hear the word 'millennial,' your head probably goes to the same place as mine. You think of entitled, lazy, hipster or whatever. I knew using the word 'millennial' would be something that would grab attention."
Not only is Johnson trying to address the stigma that comes with being a farmer, but he also he wants to change the narrative of being a millennial.
"It can be something I can turn into a positive thing like I've done with farming. Not all millennials are entitled and lazy," Johnson said. "There's a lot of millennials that work very hard and are proud of what they do. Just because they do something different, it does not mean that it's wrong. If Baby Boomer So-and-So wants to talk about millennials never doing anything right, that's not my problem."
Johnson's channel initially showed little growth. Then in September 2017, he went from 7,000 subscribers to 12,000 overnight. By the end of his harvesting season, he had reached the 30,0000 mark.
"There was a video called 'Gearing up for Harvest,'" Johnson said. "I whipped out my GoPro. I was getting the combines ready and took a walk around the grain bin. I did a quick edit and uploaded it and it just took off."
Johnson set a goal to have 100,000 subscribers by the end of 2018. He more than doubled it. He has captivated and built his audience for almost three years by doing one thing: being himself.
"I never saw this coming, if I'm being honest," he said. "I think people come to my channel to see how I do things and if they get to know me as a person along the way, that's awesome. I'm glad I can be that guy."
Suddenly too much
For a year and a half, Johnson did all of the recording and editing alone. Now, one of his main supporters — his wife, Becky — will edit and upload the videos to YouTube while he's out recording another.
Each day, Johnson hits his fields with his camera and records whatever he feels his audience needs to see from that day. Before he goes to bed he takes the memory card out of his camera and leaves it for Becky, who edits and uploads the video the next day.
"I can't get up three times during the night to check on a dryer, then go to work at 6 a.m., work until 11 p.m. and then spend two or three hours editing at night. It's just not possible. I'd be dead," he said with a smile.
So he taught Becky how to edit. He uses a different style of filming to make it as easy as possible for her, and says it's an efficient process.
Johnson has built a positive, blue-collar audience with his personality and hard work. However, in every YouTube channel there are a few bad eggs in the comment section. Johnson feels fortunate that 90 percent of the comments are positive, but still find it odd that people go out of their way to make negative remarks online.
"The ones that really burn me are the ones from guys who I know are farmers and they're not from this area and they'll trash talk what I'm doing," Johnson said. "I'm like, 'Dude, you're sitting in Amarillo, Texas and telling me how to farm in central Minnesota. It's not the same. We both put seed in the ground but beyond that it's not the same.'"
Johnson is able to put the negativity aside and see the bigger picture to what he does for himself, his family and his audience.
"To me, farming is unique. Less than 2 percent of the country grows the food, fiber and fuel for all of the other people." Johnson said emphatically.
"It's about doing honest work. What I do is different from what my great-great-grandfather did in 1876, but it's still honest work and we're still doing a good job. I am proud to be a farmer."
In the second of a two-part series, we look at Johnson's combine karaoke bit, how he became a social media influencer, and how he got paired with former Minnesota Viking Chad Greenway and his vodka company.