Minnesota's most famous farmer is used to getting recognized by strangers in public. But on Zach Johnson's recent trip to Las Vegas, it only happened a few times.
"It wasn't too bad. I think part of that is you've got your mask on half the time," said Johnson, a corn and soybean farmer from western Minnesota better known as the "Millennial Farmer" on YouTube. "The only place it can get overwhelming is at a farm show or an ag expo."
Johnson, who farms with his dad on 2,600 acres near the town of Lowry, is closing in on 900,000 followers on the hugely popular video sharing and social media site. His most-watched video, "Tractor Stuck in the MUD," boasts more than 3.7 million views.
With more than 400 short videos, he's an unquestioned star of what YouTube has dubbed "FarmTube." He has a logo and theme music, has branched out to podcasts and public speaking, paid sponsorships and a line of Millennial Farmer merchandise.
"I don't think Zach or I in a million years would have guessed this would turn into what it did," said Becky Johnson, Zach's wife and partner in the venture. "We both grew up poor in rural Minnesota."
The idea of a famous farmer seems a little absurd, given the profession's grassroots, humble nature. Charles Ingalls, the "Little House on the Prairie" patriarch, might qualify for Minnesota's title. His brief stint in farming near Walnut Grove in the late 1870s was later popularized in a book series and long-running TV show.
Johnson's family, Swedish immigrants, started farming their land right around that same period. But this fifth-generation farmer's path to renown has a distinctly 21st-century flavor.
"I started this video because I'm concerned about the disconnect between farmers and consumers," Johnson said in his first YouTube video, since viewed nearly 195,000 times.
The hundreds of videos that followed, most about 20 minutes long, follow Johnson as he performs nearly every conceivable task that goes with large-scale crop farming and heavy farm machinery use and maintenance — usually with Johnson manning the GoPro camera himself.
He will sometimes tour other farms, occasionally weigh in on current topics in agriculture and, infrequently, he'll venture a political opinion. Although, he stressed, he mostly steers clear of politics.
Upbeat and often irreverent, Johnson interacts with a rotating cast of characters that includes Becky ("Mrs. Millennial Farmer") and their kids, his dad, Nate, and farmhand Jim, other regulars, guest stars and family pets. Many clips feature lighthearted moments of farm life and bits of zany humor.
"Stop looking at us, swans!" Johnson shouted at a nearby flock in one video, as he and Becky rolled across a field in their tractor, en route to watch a sunset.
With that simple formula, Johnson has risen to the very top of YouTube's farm-oriented programming. "I did a couple searches that suggest he's the most-watched farm personality on the site," said Brendan Gahan, partner and chief social officer at the New York City advertising firm Mekanism.
Johnson's follower count is dwarfed by YouTube's biggest celebrities, but Gahan said it still qualifies him as a "breakthrough star." About 29,000 YouTube personalities have surpassed 1 million followers, putting Johnson — now approaching that strata — in an elite class on a website with worldwide reach.
A 2020 report titled "Welcome to FarmTube," prepared by YouTube's culture and trends manager for the U.S. and Canada, singled out Johnson's success.
It's also been lucrative. While he declined to reveal specifics of Millennial Farmer-related earnings, Johnson said he now makes more every year as a YouTuber than he does farming.
That includes a slice of revenue from ads YouTube plays during his videos and personal sponsorship deals with various ag-related businesses, along with Millennial Farmer-branded T-shirts and caps, beer cozies and other swag. The merchandise, Johnson said, "really took off."
Becky Johnson, who used to provide daycare services, now works full-time on the Millennial Farmer business. She manages the money and edits all the videos. "Just about every day I'll watch some kind of tutorial video on some new technique," she said.
Zach and Becky met as high school students from neighboring towns and married in 2007. They have three kids between ages 6 and 12, and they adopted Becky's now 20-year-old niece several years ago. They live in the farmhouse where Zach grew up.
Emily Krekelberg, a University of Minnesota Extension educator who co-hosts a farm-based podcast called "The Moos Room," said she thinks Johnson's online alias was a stroke of genius.
"A lot of people hear farmer, they picture an old guy in overalls and a dirty baseball cap," said Krekelberg, who doesn't know Johnson but follows his work. "He's bringing that younger perspective — you get to see what farming looks like for the younger generations. And he's got a personality that shows through."
Gahan, the social media expert, said YouTube's breakthrough stars typically develop "para-social bonds" with their audience, creating "feelings akin to a real friendship. He's letting you into a world that's both unique in its setting but also authentic."
The Millennial Farmer is not a character, Johnson said, and his friends and family agree. A recent video revealed his tough bout with COVID. Johnson said in an interview that he was unvaccinated but is now considering getting the shots because the illness was so rough.
Nate Johnson said his son never showed interest in performing, but one of his son's teachers once told him, "This kid is going to be on Saturday Night Live someday.'"
Johnson knew it was possible to make money on YouTube but said he never thought videos would be more than a hobby. But in September 2017, one of his videos caught on.
"I just turned on the GoPro and talked for 17 minutes or so, just showed some combines we were working on, some other stuff we were working on, talked about what was going on. I didn't even think it was that great a clip," Johnson said. "But it just took off like crazy."
As unexpectedly as they found success, the Johnsons know it could just as easily go away. "YouTube could change some algorithm and that could just be it," Becky said.
Zach Johnson hopes to get at least a few more years out of his current formula, but he sees a time when he makes videos less frequently.
"I kind of struggle with the idea that, you know — I am a farmer, that's what I am, that's what I want to be, that's what I hope to be forever," Johnson said. "But in reality we spend just as much or more time in the social media world. I'm trying to figure out how to balance that exactly."