Published September 30th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
In 2005, Jason Aldean penned an anthem for Texas farmers that resonated across the agricultural world. In “Amarillo Sky,” the country singer describes the life of grain farmers:
“He just takes the tractor another round,
And pulls the plow across the ground,
And sends up another prayer.”
In 2020, some farmers are adding another step to the process: posting a video of it on social media.
The platform of choice? TikTok.
The short video platform is a staple in Gen Zennial culture, and also the kickstarter for a broader conversation about privacy in a tech-driven world. Rural growers are increasingly using TikTok to showcase life on the farm, even as the booming tech platform becomes the focus of geopolitical tension.
President Donald Trump recently issued an order that would ban WeChat and TikTok from operating in the United States, if they were not sold to domestic investors.
The White House’s stance has been that because TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese parent company, the potential flow of American data to China could pose a national security threat. TikTok has denied this claim time and time again.
Rumors of TikTok deals involving Oracle and Wal-Mart have been major stories in the tech world, but no official deal has been reached.
On Sunday, Judge Carl Nichols of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia blocked the President’s order by granting an injunction against it. The block happened just a day before the U.S. government could force Apple and Google to remove the platform from their app stores. But the injunction does not block a broader ban that would go into effect on Nov. 12 that would make TikTok unusable.
Trace Chambers is a sophomore in Agriculture Systems Management at the University of Missouri whose family farms in Fayette, Missouri. Chambers, an avid consumer/creator of farm TikTok, didn’t think a ban was coming anyways, and he certainly isn’t worried about China getting access to his personal data.
“I know it’s a possibility,” Chambers said. “A very small part in the back of my head worries, but then I push that aside and say that if they wanted to track me they could do it already. I know that sounds bad.”
Chambers’ content consists mostly of videos of his three different trucks. An ‘02 Dodge Cummins, an ‘01 Dodge Cummins and an old, incredibly loud, Chevrolet he bought for $900 that he refers to as “the shitbox.”
He hasn’t gone viral yet (most of his videos average somewhere around 200 plays) but that’s not really the goal. Like most people his age, he’s just having fun on the app.
In Chillicothe, Missouri, one family is going viral.
Madison Larkin’s son was an avid user of Musical.ly, the app which eventually became TikTok. To promote her mushroom farming business, Grand River Mushrooms, Larkin started making videos on the app. Now the family’s page @mofarmfamily has nearly 8,000 followers, and routinely has videos that surpass 100,000 plays, especially ones that showcase their row crop farm operation.
“I was like, ‘Why don’t I just show the day in the life of all of the different things we do?’,” Larkin said.
Larkin’s videos range from cooking, to driving and maintaining farm equipment, to her kids helping out on the family farm. One of her most popular videos (320,100 plays and 12,200 likes) is a supercut of her polishing a semi’s fuel tank to the tune of Run D.M.C.’s “It’s Tricky.”
Part of her TikTok journey has been figuring out the algorithm to attract maximum attention to their videos.
“The first time that my husband taught me how to plant by myself, I literally picked up the planter, turn the planter around, and set the planter back down, and that was all it was,” Larkin said. “And it went viral. After that I’ve done some different things, I’ve done cooking ones, some trending videos, but I’ve noticed that for us anyways, TikTok seems to have us labeled as a farm. So anytime that I’ve done anything that’s not directly related to our farming, it doesn’t do very good.”
The row crop videos doing well is perfectly fine with Larkin, who hopes to use the app to show off a major part of her family’s life that people who didn’t grow up on the farm wouldn’t understand.
Larkin’s husband is a third-generation farmer who grew up in this lifestyle. She did not. Tapping back into that experience of learning about row crop farming for the first time has helped her make TikToks a little more educational.
“There’s a lot of stuff that I watched my husband do that I didn’t know about,” Larkin said. “There’s other people that might not know these things. So I basically went about it from an education standpoint — to educate other people on some of these little nuances that my husband really feels like are just normal to him. I wouldn’t notice them if I wasn’t on the farm.”
Some of those videos show off the work and group effort it takes to run a family farm. The Larkins farm around 2,000 acres. There is a video of their 12-year-old son operating the tractor and mower. Another shows Madison filling the box planter, and another of her operating the planter in a smaller field. Larkin says she has gotten a lot of women reaching out when she tags her videos #womeninag.
“I’ve had a lot of women who are just like ‘you go girl’,” Larkin said. “Because I guess the things I’m doing myself are things that maybe women don’t traditionally do (on the farm).”
According to Chambers at MU, TikTok is a strategic tool for the ag industry to get the word out about their way of life.
“The ag side of TikTok is a booming thing,” Chambers said. “Every leadership conference you go to talks about advocating for agriculture. (This) is just another way to do that.”
The goal is to have an ag video go mega-viral and show up on the feeds of people not in the agricultural world.
Will Hartzell, or as most people on the internet would refer to him, LeBarn James, got huge on TikTok in May by posting videos of himself in overalls and boots showing off his silky smooth jump shot on wooden hoops attached to the sides of farm buildings.
While Larkin says that @mofarmfamily is mostly a creative outlet for her, she has been keeping track of what’s going on with the platform.
“If it went away, would I be sad? Yeah,” Larkin said. “You know, I figured they would get something figured out at some point, so I wasn’t really concerned.”
But she is mildly concerned about a data leak. She has had conversations with her family, and was cautious when thinking about activating an Amazon Alexa interactive device in their house.
“I think that everyone now is so digitized in regards to having your phone on you all of the time,” Larkin said. “So I don’t know if it’s (having TikTok) any worse than anything else we and most people are already doing.”
For now the app is still operating, and Larkin plans to keep posting. She had planned a big video on Monday, when her husband was finally able to get their combine out to the field. But with heavy rainfall on Sunday, it looks like that video will have to wait for drier weather.
Jacob Douglas covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.