‘There’s always common ground between us’
Minn. Millennial Farmer main speaker at Crop Improvement Day
By Anna Jauhola
Finding common ground can be a challenge, but it’s always there, even between farmers and non-farmers. Zach Johnson, better known as the Minnesota Millennial Farmer, was the main speaker at Kittson County’s Crop Improvement Day in Lancaster on Thursday, Jan. 9. His YouTube channel has racked up nearly 80 million views over the last four years, proving people are curious to know more about farming, where the world’s food comes from and everything in between.
“People are willing to listen to farmers right now,” he told the packed audience at the Lancaster Community Center. “There’s a huge movement to get to know farmers again, to know where your food comes from. We need to take advantage of that. If people are willing to listen, find what suits you and be a positive voice for the industry.”
Johnson is a fifth-generation corn and soybean farmer from west-central Minnesota. He and his family live on the farm his great-great-grandfather homesteaded in the 1870s. His many controversial and conflicting conversations with his sister-in-law led him to begin making the videos he shares on YouTube. He calls them simple videos, meant to connect with people and show them farming on a personal level.
“I really wanted to try and teach people about who we are as farmers and who we are as people. Like I tell people, ‘It’s almost like farmers are just like real people,’” he said to laughs from the crowd. “Some people are surprised when they realize that.”
He noted that 100 years ago, 40 percent of America’s population were farmers. Now, farmers comprise only 1 to 2 percent of America’s population. So, using the popular buzz word “millennial” to catch people’s attention, Johnson – a millennial himself – launched his YouTube channel in 2016 to show people his admittedly unique way of life.
And he’s gained followers all over the globe. He was so popular with two young farmers in Sao Paulo, Brazil, that they arranged to visit Johnson in Minnesota and see how farming is done in the U.S.
Brothers Rafael and Guilherme were impressed with the use of technology, how black the soil is and the great road conditions. In Brazil, there is no public roadway system, so farmers cooperate and co-own equipment to build their own roads to truck product to the port in Sao Paulo.
“These guys are hard-working millennials and hard-working farmers,” Johnson said. “They like what they do and now they come back every few years to learn more of what’s happening here in agriculture.”
The major reason he started his YouTube channel was to circulate information about farming straight from a farmer on the farm. He referenced a recent survey that says two-thirds of Americans have never met a farmer, 8 in 10 people don’t know how to contact a farmer and 98 percent don’t understand what farmers do.
“We are the 1 to 2 percent of the population that provides the food, fiber and fuel for 100 percent of the population,” he said. “The good thing about the survey is 80 percent of Americans still view agriculture as extremely important and still have a positive view.”
Johnson sees this as a golden opportunity to connect with all sorts of people, and his videos have made that impact. He said farmers know their responsibility to be efficient in managing their farms, food safety and how they manage resources. However, the majority of people in the U.S. have no idea and are simply concerned about the environment and where their food comes from.
“There’s that common ground between people,” he said. “There’s always common ground between us.”
Most of Johnson’s videos are of him and his partners on the farm working on equipment, out in the field, planting, harvesting and just generally showing day-to-day farm life. In doing that, he’s discovered his viewers – many of whom are not farmers – have also discovered the common ground they share with Johnson. He said 99 percent of the comments he has seen have been positive. He said people are happy to see a farmer working and explaining what he does.
“People are looking for information from farmers,” he said, including first-person accounts of GMOs, which he did in 2017. “I expected backlash on this, but I haven’t had it yet. That confirms to me that people want to get to know us and understand what we do.”