Their YouTube videos are innovative, informative and funny and, thanks to the magic of “going viral,” have been seen by hundreds of millions of viewers. Capitalizing upon their newfound status as social media influencers, the Peterson Brothers, a trio of young, fifth-generation farmers from central Kansas, are continuing to take their message —that farming is probably nothing like the average person imagines it to be — to the masses. Using podcasts, dedicated YouTube channels, the gamut of social media channels (Facebook, Tiktok, Twitter, Instagram, Snap), personal appearances and more, they’ve covered subjects ranging from the benefits of crop dusting to irrigation techniques to promoting farm safety.
Often lost amidst all the focus on messaging, however, is the fact that the brothers are still running a 2,500 acre farm (while contract farming others) and have to deal with the same issues confronting other farmers around the world. With this year’s harvest behind them, they will begin the farm winterization process, stock feed for their 1,000+ head of cattle, begin planning for next year’s crop — the list is seemingly endless. Through it all, they also try to keep abreast of any changes in technology they can consider to make their work easier, more efficient or more economical. Because, while a farmer’s work is, indeed, never done, it can always be improved upon.
From Sweden With Love
By anyone’s standards, the Peterson Farm in Assaria, Kansas has an impressive lineage. Established by the brothers’ great-great-grandparents — Swedish immigrants — almost 140 years ago as part of the U.S. Homestead Act, the farm has been in the family continuously since that time. The trio currently running the farming operation, brothers Greg, 30; Nathan, 28; and Kendal, 25; have all been farming alongside their father since they were in elementary school. Consideration of an alternate career path never crossed their minds, according to Greg.
“We all grew up wanting to farm; we never really thought of anything else,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing that gets in your blood — it takes hold and never lets go. Even when we each left for college, the idea was always to get better in specific areas that could benefit the farm when we returned to it. So the plan was always to come back here and pick up where we left off — hopefully, a bit wiser.”
That position — going off to gain knowledge designed to help the family farm — is fairly commonplace among many in the brothers’ generation. According to Kendal, the goal can be short-term or very far-sighted. “A lot of younger people, like us, get their degrees and come back to apply what they’ve learned. But there are also many who get a job in industry with the intention of working for a number of years before going back to the family farm. I suppose it depends on individual circumstances.”
“Bringing newer technology to the farm is definitely what I had in mind when I chose ag tech management.”
In a K-State of Mind
As might be expected from any self-respecting Kansas farm family, all three brothers attended one of the premier agricultural institutions in the country, Kansas State University in nearby Manhattan. Greg received his BS with a major in an agricultural communications and a minor in music and journalism. Nathan’s degree was in agricultural technology management with an agronomy minor, while Kendal graduated with a major in agricultural economics and a minor in animal science.
“Bringing newer technology to the farm is definitely what I had in mind when I chose ag tech management,” said Nathan. “I wanted to better understand machines, the new technology that is coming into them, and how it all works together. For the agronomy minor, rather than selecting some of the in-depth classes, I chose subjects like weed sciences, soil fertility, crop sciences, etc., things that I knew would be more applicable on the farm. I also took an engine power transfer class and one that dealt with GPS systems and precision agriculture — both of them have proven valuable since coming back here.”
That last point hits home for the Petersons as they witness a dramatic advance in farming techniques, particularly with regard to precision agriculture. While change has been one of the few constants in farming, the pace at which that change is taking place — and the impact it is having — is unprecedented. “Farming changes every decade but, from our grandpa to our dad, equipment just got bigger,” said Greg. “Obviously, there were some technological advances. But the computerization we are seeing today is much different and presents a whole new set of challenges.”
The Precision Approach
The precision agriculture to which Greg refers is generally defined as a farming concept that uses observation, measurement and response to deal with a variability in crops. Its goal is to establish a practice or program that will both optimize returns on inputs and preserve resources. Using “smart” equipment and sensors, the tractors/sprayers/combines of today — often working off satellite imagery — are more efficiently seeding and fertilizing, ultimately resulting in better yields and less waste. According to Greg, incorporating that process has been helped through a strategic partnership they have with Topcon Agriculture.
“We have genuinely enjoyed working with Topcon,” he said. “They bring a lot of knowledge to the table and there’s no doubt we were able to jump ahead in technology because of the relationship we have with them. Our sprayer is probably twice as efficient as it was before adding the Topcon solution to it, proving that installing this additional technology can turn a standard piece of equipment into a powerful tool. It also doesn’t hurt that we work with Great Plains Ag in Salina, a company that uses Topcon solutions as part of their planters, drills, and other systems. Between the two companies, we’ve really been able to up our capabilities.”
For the Petersons, precision ag begins with zone-specific soil testing based on data from satellite images. Not only is each field soil-tested — within each field, the higher producing areas are also soil-tested separately from lower producing ones. Based off those findings, they create a prescription map which tells the controller what part of the field they are in and apply according to that prescription.
“We’ve always adjusted field by field, but since I came home from K-State, we’ve updated some areas and done more computerized variable rate seeding and fertilizing,” said Nathan. “Doing so provides an all-around better level of efficiency with fertilizer and seed inputs — essentially, getting the best production possible based on an area’s specific needs.”
While they are thrilled with where they are at today, Greg added that adopting a particular solution is not an instant ticket to productivity. “Any new technology that comes onto the market generally costs a lot of money and the question of whether or not it will pay for itself becomes an issue,” he said. “But, as we’ve seen with GPS, autosteer, etc., most systems get more affordable over time and start that return on investment. Each individual farm has to figure out what works best for them — we are no exception.”
“One of the things that has motivated us is a need to answer people’s questions about agriculture and correct some of the notions they have about farming.”
Meeting with the public and the media — often, the non-farm components of both audiences — opens the Petersons up to a barrage of questions about the viability of some farm practices and, inevitably, the issue of sustainability. While the brothers understand the well-intentioned nature of such questions, they are quick to point out that, not only do they already practice some of the more basic principles of sustainability (crop rotation, reduction of tillage, integration of livestock and crops, integrated pest management, etc.), people are missing the bigger point, according to Kendal.
“Often, people with little knowledge of the industry will say: ‘Farms today need to be sustainable,’” he said “Well, there’s a reason our farm has lasted for five generations and that is precisely because of sustainability. A farmer who abuses his animals, his land, and the environment, isn’t going to last five years, let alone five generations. We know what works and what doesn’t in order to keep the farm functioning. Our livestock and crop operations are very integrated and have been for some time. All of our crops either go through our cattle or are fertilized by our cattle. I think that’s why most farms in Kansas have livestock. Two out of every ten years you will have a crop that doesn’t make grain because of lack of moisture, so it becomes feed.”
His brother Greg, concurs, saying that some people will say they need to take a particular action, in order to be sustainable. Yet, doing that very thing would most likely doom their operation. “What is sustainable about that?” he asks rhetorically.
“A good example is for us to stop using herbicides,” he said. “If we were to do that, the farm would be overtaken by weeds, insects or both. Central Kansas, with its harsh summers, sporadic rainfall and variable soil, is a pretty tough environment to farm in. A farmer needs all the tools at his or her disposal to make it work, so it would be impossible for us to go all-organic and remain in business. And if every farm in the U.S. went in that direction, it’s doubtful we’d be able to meet current food demands. Does that mean we shouldn’t have organics? No. But people have to understand that there are so many factors that go into sustainability. It is not a simple, ‘one solution fits all’ thing.”
Changes in Attitude
By now it should be obvious that the Petersons love the profession they’ve chosen, want to change the many misperceptions that plague it and have been very good at doing just that. They are, quite literally, the embodiment of the term that has arisen and been used to describe those involved in efforts like theirs: Agvocates.
“One of the things that has motivated us is a need to answer people’s questions about agriculture and correct some of the notions they have about farming,” said Greg. “I think it’s painful to go online and see that people still envision farmers as people with pitchforks and overalls. So, our motivation was, and still is, to use social media to show people what farming is really like, what goes into it, where their food actually comes from.”
He adds that there is some pushback to the “Agvocates” term from some farmers who feel it’s a waste of time to try to reach people and change their perceptions. The brothers have even been accused of doing it for attention and personal gain but shrug off the naysayers. They are more concerned about getting their message out and dispelling misinformation about their livelihood.
“Despite stories in the press saying that the family farm is dying, in the U.S. today, 97% of all farms are still family farms — very few are corporate, non-family operated businesses,” he said. “The family farm is not dead, it is just getting bigger; it stands to reason that there are fewer of them than, say, 20 years ago. We love farming and know that helping people better understand what we do and how we do it is a benefit to both them and us. If there’s any industry in America worth promoting it is this one, so we will keep doing what we can to make people a bit better informed, one video, one appearance, one Tweet at a time.”