“We’re going to be hauling some grass and some alfalfa bales today,” Cole Sonne cheerfully tells the camera as he drives a tractor over the bumps of his family’s farm in South Dakota. And for the next 12 minutes, the video will show Sonne and his dad do just that, carefully moving hundreds of the bundles, each as tall as a person, across their property. The sun shines down on the farm’s lush grass, peaceful music plays in the background—the effect is soothing. The work, though, is monotonous. It wouldn’t be unfair to call it boring.
Sonne’s fans love it: The bale-hauling video has been viewed over 100,000 times on YouTube since it was posted in July. Sonne is a college student, and works on the same land that his grandfather did with his uncle and father. Last year, he started a YouTube channel dedicated to the farm, which has since amassed over 30,000 followers. “A lot of times when people hear about what I do or I tell them, they get a dumbfounded look and ask, ‘People watch that?’” says Sonne, who earned roughly $650 from YouTube advertisements last month.
YouTube is home to influencers from nearly every professional and cultural niche, from crystal healers to fast food connoisseurs, and farming is predictably no exception. In fact, agrarian content is growing: Creators uploaded 61 percent more farming-related videos to YouTube this year than the one before, and views on farming content are up 69 percent, according to Madeline Buxton, a culture and trends manager at the company. Buxton traveled to Nebraska last week to give a keynote presentation about the phenomenon at the annual Farmer2Farmer conference, an industry event put on by the Farmers Business Network.
It’s not an easy time to be an American farmer. The number of farms in the US is declining, according to the Department of Agriculture, as consolidation makes big operations even bigger. In 2017, the most recent year for the USDA’s industry census, the average farm income was just $43,053, and less than half of farms reported positive net cash. The price of commodities like corn, wheat, and milk have fallen, making it harder to turn a profit. Extreme weather, like this year’s devastating floods in the midwest, puts additional pressure on farms. Many have also been negatively impacted by the US trade war with China.
“The weather still dictates a huge amount of our lives, input costs have skyrocketed, meaning most of us live under a mountain of debt that we hope we can make the payments on every year,” says Zach Johnson, a fifth-generation farmer whose channel Millennial Farmer has nearly 400,000 subscribers.
On YouTube, though, the picture is sometimes much rosier. There, farming can seem more like an aspirational lifestyle choice rather than a precarious livelihood. Buxton says YouTube has seen an influx of new creators who specifically chronicle what it’s like to open a farm after living in a city or working a corporate job. Like #VanLife videos, where creators share how they abandoned the mainstream to live on the road, farming content serves as a how-to guide to an alternative way of living.
Americans have been romanticizing farmers since the Founding Fathers. Even today, while the vast majority of Americans live in urban areas, most still say they want to live in a rural place, according to a Gallup poll. Farming YouTube offers the chance to experience a way of life that’s often idealized, but practically inaccessible to most people. “It’s like their dream,” says Becky G., who runs the channel White House on the Hill with her husband Jake on their farm in Missouri. (It’s not just the US, either. In China, where YouTube is banned, farmers like Liu Mama have found massive audiences on the social media platform Kuaishou, where they document the rural life that millions of Chinese left behind when they moved to larger cities.)