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West-central Minnesota farmer generating unique opportunities through online fame

Zach Johnson takes a GoPro selfie on May 14, 2017, in his tractor (Zach Johnson / Instagram @mnmillennialfarmer)1 / 5
Zach Johnson poses in his tractor before heading out to tend to his soybeans on June 6, 2018. (Instagram @minnesoyta)2 / 5
Zach Johnson, left, and former Minnesota Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway pose in front of a tractor in the middle of shooting a video for Johnson's YouTube channel. Special to Forum News Service 3 / 5
Zach Johnson stands on the side of the tractor he used to film his viral "Combine Karaoke" video. Jared Rubado / Forum News Service4 / 5
Zach Johnson poses with his 100,000 subscriber plaque in front of his farming equipment. Jared Rubado / Forum News Service5 / 5

LOWRY, Minn. - 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, about 20 miles southwest of Alexandria. 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.”

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.

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.

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 30,000 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.”

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.

New opportunities

Johnson was ready to go to work on his fields last September when he received a phone call. A plant manager in Benson, where Johnson sells 90 percent of his corn, was tasked with finding farmers who were comfortable speaking in front of a camera. The “MN Millennial Farmer,” with over 215,000 YouTube subscribers, was the first guy on the list.

The call was about setting farmers up with a camera crew to speak about the work they do and why they do it for a television feature for Grey Duck Vodka, owned by former Minnesota Viking linebacker Chad Greenway.

“They just took video of me talking about what I do with my family farm,” Johnson said. “It was the MN Millennial Farmer selling his corn to Chad Greenway. When we were done I asked them if they wanted to do anything more with it. I wanted to make connections.”

Johnson’s efforts paid off once again when he received another phone call two weeks later asking if he would like to shoot a video with Greenway for Johnson’s channel.

“Umm, yeah. Duh,” Johnson said with enthusiasm. “He flew up here and we did what we did. He’s a really genuine, down-to-earth guy.”

Greenway, linebacker selection to the NFL Pro Bowl in 2012 and 2013, still helps out on his mother’s farm in South Dakota.

More unique videos

The connection to Greenway wasn’t the first time a considerable opportunity has fallen into Johnson’s lap.

The website www.agdaily.com approached Johnson with an idea in the fall of 2017. He was offered $300 to make a video for the AGDaily YouTube channel where he would perform a karaoke bit in his combine as a spoof of the “Carpool Karaoke” bit created by CBS late night talk show host James Corden.

“I wanted to do this video with somebody I could be stupid on camera with,” Johnson said. “I called my brother Mitch and we bounced some ideas off each other and we thought we could make it better than what the AGDaily guys were thinking. I didn’t run it by them and I just did it the way I wanted to do it.”

The video consists of Zach and Mitch sitting in a combine driving through Zach’s fields. The audio swiftly changes to the popular hip hop song, “Turn Down for What,” by DJ Snake and Lil John. The brothers danced in the small cab of Zach’s tractor in a way that only two, middle-age guys from small-town Minnesota can shake it to one of the most popular rap songs of 2013.

Zach and Mitch shot another karaoke video to the tune of the once-popular song, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” by Queen. AGDaily was thrilled with the footage. Their team edited it and put it on the AGDaily YouTube channel. Johnson was able to add the videos to his own channel with the AGDaily logo on it.

“I was really happy with how they turned out,” he said. “I can’t believe the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ video has more views than the other one. The other one is way funnier.”

The future of his brand

Johnson’s plan for the future is to keep doing what he’s done to be successful. He wants to keep growing his channel and connecting with more farmers. Through his connections with Greenway, he might get some assistance in doing so.

“There’s two guys behind the scenes on the media side that I talk to fairly frequently,” Johnson said. “They told me they have about 30 influencers working with them right about now. I’m guessing most of them are professional athletes. Probably not a ton of farmers.”

Johnson has been invited to a private party at Lord Fletcher’s Old Lake Lodge on Lake Minnetonka in the Twin Cities through his tie-ins with his social media people.

“They told me that Chad and his Grey Duck guys, along with the pro athletes, were all going to be there and they said they wanted me down there for that. I’ll fit right in,” Johnson said jokingly. “I’m going to meet some great people. Just meeting Chad and doing what I’ve already done with him is unbelievable. Now I just have to buy a suit.”