Q&A: Zach Johnson, The Millennial Farmer
Like many other farmers, Zach Johnson farms the land on which he was raised near Lowry in central Minnesota.
“I grew up loving it,” he says. Still, Johnson has another love: dirt-track racing. After graduating from high school, he attended school in Bemidji, Minnesota, to study performance engines that power race cars.
“I wanted to start my own shop,” he says.
Still, this was harder than he initially thought. “I was kicking around that idea, trying to figure out what to do. I started farming with Dad, and as I went along, I decided farming was what I wanted to do.”
Several years into his career, he noticed a disconnect between farmers and nonfarmers, even those who grew up in his rural area.
“I saw them put stuff on social media that was just not right,” he says. “One (nonfarmer) I know said when she looked up GMOs (on the web), it was all negative,” he says. She could not find one farmer who talked about why he planted GMOs. To her, farmers were keeping a big secret.
“To me, that was a light bulb moment,” he says. “We have to get farmers out there talking about this and being transparent about why we use the management techniques we do.”
That’s when Johnson and his wife, Becky, started their own YouTube channel, Millennial Farmer, in the spring of 2016.
“It took about a year and a half to two years for it to take off,” he says. “Pretty soon, we were pumping out as many videos as we could. It just snowballed and continues to grow.”
Today, the Millennial Farmer YouTube channel has approximately 420,000 subscribers, with 82 to 83 million views.
SF: Is there any one video that caused the Millennial Farmer YouTube channel to take off?
ZJ: It was the episode when one of our hired guys got a tractor stuck in the mud. I knew it would be a decent video. I held the camera and (jokingly) told him, “Don’t worry, we won’t put it in front of millions of people,” and we got it pulled out. We showed people, “OK, we have a problem, but rather than drag each other down, let’s go to work and pull it out.” (Editor’s note: So far, “Stuck in the Mud” has 1.6 million views.)
SF: Did you have any qualms about starting the channel?
ZJ: I am not as much of an extrovert as most assume I am. I like my privacy. At the same time, I saw a need for information to be put out there. It sounds cliché, but I had a story to tell and I wanted to tell it.
SF: What content makes up most of your videos?
ZJ: Most are of my own farm. I have started to travel around and highlight other farms, because we don’t have livestock on our farm. We go on family vacations where we take an entire day and create videos on other farms.
SF: What was your worst time in farming?
ZJ: The harvest of 2009. We had a lot of corn standing (due to adverse fall weather), and a lot of it was poor quality. That harvest went on and on.
SF: What was your best time in farming?
ZJ: In 2012, the rest of the country was in a drought. We were about an hour north of that line. It was our best crop ever, with corn $8 per bushel.
It sounds cliché, but farming is a rewarding life. It is a great place to raise kids. You have lots of proud moments in planting crops or raising animals and getting to see the fruits of your labor.
The one thing I learned in the last year was to be myself and to be motivated for things I want to be motivated for. I don’t let other people make decisions for me.
SF: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
ZJ: Between my dad and someone else I work with closely, it is to pay more attention to farm management. That’s one thing that gets overlooked. There is a time to work hard, but there is also a time to work smart.
Zach Johnson grows corn and soybeans with his father, Nate, and a part-time employee. The Johnson family has roots in Sweden, with the first generation of Johnsons settling the farm in the 1870s. Wife Becky handles the business end of the Millennial Farmer brand that includes YouTube videos, speaking engagements, podcasts, and merchandise. The couple – the farm’s fifth generation – has three children from ages 4 to 10 and an 18-year-old niece who lives with them.