Unsubscribe? FarmTok Worries About a TikTok Ban - Modern Farmer

Unsubscribe? FarmTok Worries About a TikTok Ban

With a ban on TikTok looming, many farmers, ranchers and producers are worried about how they’ll continue to connect with audiences.

Photography courtesy of Joshua Westerfeld, Tiktok

Twenty-eight million people have watched Joshua Westerfeld shovel wheat. The most popular video on his TikTok account, pinned to the top of his page, shows how his farm dealt with a water leak in its grain silo. A bad day for the farm, to be sure, but a good day to create content. 

That’s just one of the slice-of-life videos Westerfeld shares with the nearly 185,000  followers of @family_farm_life. You can see the team (his family, on the family-run 8,000-acre Texas ranch) seeding corn fields, unloading hay bales or showing off truly impressive farmers’ tans


This kind fo stuff happens all the time on the farm…. #farming #farm #farmtok #farmlife #farmers #countrylife #farmgirl #farmboy #agriculture #country #countryboy #familyfarm #familyfarmlife

♬ original sound – Family Farm Life

The Westerfelds farm corn and wheat and run a herd of cattle as well. Through it all, Joshua films and edits videos that show what farm life is like—and he’s connecting with young people. He says roughly 70 percent of his audience is 18 to 34 years old. 

Westerfeld loves TikTok, and he has for a while. He started making videos for social media a few years ago, when he was still in high school. About three years ago, when TikTok began its rise as the social media platform to beat, he transitioned over and started gaining a following. For Westerfeld, the app is all about connections. “It’s a support system,” he says, noting that he seeks out other farmers’ content on the platform and they find his. “I’ve seen times where farmers will post a video with a problem, like some piece of equipment that they’re not sure how to fix, asking for help. And you’ll see the comment section is just filled.” 


Getting our spryer out of the mud. #countrylife #countryboy #farming #farm #farmtok #farmlife #farmers #agriculture #farmwork #farmer

♬ original sound – Family Farm Life

On Westerfeld’s corner of the app, affectionately referred to as FarmTok, conversations between farmers and non-farmers are  ongoing and can help people feel more connected to and conscious of where their food comes from. On his corn seeding video, viewers asked questions like “why are the seeds blue?” and “why don’t you use seeds from the previous year’s harvest?” 

But this interplay between farmers and consumers could go away soon. Last month, President Joe Biden signed a bill into law that would force TikTok’s Chinese-owned parent company, ByteDance, to either sell TikTok within a year or face a US-wide ban over fears that ByteDance could be compelled to share data on US users of the app with the Chinese government. TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew responded (in a video posted to TikTok, naturally) that the company had no interest in selling and that it  plans to fight the ban in courts. Recently, a group of eight prominent TikTok users have also launched a lawsuit against the US federal government, claiming that a ban violates their rights to  free speech. 

According to TikTok, more than  seven million small businesses in the US advertise on its platform in some way, and 90 percent of those small businesses in the agricultural space say the app has helped them reach new audiences. The hashtag “agriculture” has more than  two million videos, and the platform says it has  collectively attracted more than 23 billion views in the last year alone.

tell us: If you're a farmer, rancher, or food producer, what would a ban on tiktok do to your business?

For Huey Boelen, with nearly two million followers on the app, the impact of TikTok on small farming businesses has been impressive. Boelen previously worked at both dairy and row crop farms, and he has posted videos from both. There’s a “network effect” with TikTok, he says. Many social media apps start by making an account and connecting to friends or family, people you know in real life. With TikTok, the algorithm is such that it works in the opposite fashion, feeding you videos from around the world, even if you don’t follow the person. “I leaned into that,” he says. Boelen would post videos from around the farm, such as  footage of a calf being born, and label it as educational. “That’s when people really started to interact.” Those connections led to more people viewing his videos, which led to more people clicking over to learn more about the farms. 

For Boelen, the focus from Congress on an app like TikTok seems almost wasteful. He notes that the country’s national debt is $34 trillion. “Infrastructure is not the greatest in this country. Education needs to be better,” he says. “The dollars [are not] being spent in the right places.” 

As a platform, TikTok has allowed people around the world to connect with each other, for good or ill. The French government banned the app amid violent protests in its island territory of New Caledonia, and the app has been accused of promoting anti-semitisim in how it shows videos that reference the war between Israel and Hamas. There have been concerns about the mental health of users who devote a lot of time to the app.

tell us: For all you eaters out there, how much food is in your feed? FarmTok, recipes, newsletters?

Still, in congressional hearings with Chew last year, it seemed as if some members of Congress weren’t even familiar with how the app worked—simply that it is connected to China. “I think Congress is pretty out of touch with [TikTok users], ” says Westerfeld, who watched that hearing. “There may be bad sides to TikTok. There are good sides, too, like the farming side. It’s helping people, giving people careers, helping small businesses … I don’t think [Congress] understands the impact.” 

If the ban does come down, both Boelen and Westerfeld say they have looked at other platforms, and they have experimented with putting videos on sites such as  YouTube. They may be able to find new audiences on new platforms. But they also express some sadness that many TikTok users could lose out on what they see as an education. “The less people understand farmers, the more likely it is that they’re not going to be on our side when [things such as  the next Farm Bill comes up,” says Westerfeld. “I’m able to learn stuff every day [from TikTok]. I can only imagine what it’s like for somebody who’s never seen farming before.”

READ MORE: 10 Farmers and Gardeners to Follow on TikTok


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