MOUNT VERNON, S.D. — Cole Sonne has a busy life working on the farm.
He feeds cattle. He mows hay. And as autumn approaches, he’s getting man and machine ready for harvest. There is plenty to do and only so many hours in a day to do it.
But Sonne spends at least part of his week dedicated to recording his and his family's endeavors on their farm near Mount Vernon as part of the United States of YouTube, a showcase of workers and artists from around the 50 states featured on the popular video website YouTube. As one of the 50 featured workers, Sonne has amassed over 90,000 followers and nearly 12 million views with his videos of farm life in South Dakota.
It’s a routine that began on a whim.
“It started with me buying a drone and I was taking pictures of us farming,” Sonne said in a recent interview with the Mitchell Republic. “That takes up a lot of space on your memory devices, and I thought I’d edit up a little bit and throw it up on YouTube and then I could do more videos.”
That was 2017, when Sonne used his new drone to take footage of an 18-inch snowfall that arrived at the farm. He was a junior attending South Dakota State University for agronomy at the time, and had been home working with his dad and uncle. He enjoyed putting together short videos that highlighted the chores that come with raising cattle, corn and soybeans.
The first videos were simple but gained a positive reaction both live and online.
“My dad pushed me to try it, and it kind of went from there. The first videos weren’t great by any means,” Sonne said.
Sonne knew farming could be a popular topic on YouTube. He learned that attending college, where he would occasionally browse such videos when he was feeling a little homesick for the farm. So he applied some of the video editing skills he learned in a high school class and set out to create a series of videos he would upload three times a week.
To date, he has 172 videos posted on his channel Sonne Farms, and he has more planned as the 2020 harvest season gets underway. He tries to keep his videos relatively short at around 10 minutes, although his videos have grown in length since they started featuring other family members and taken a more conversational tone.
Sonne has reached a wide audience with his videos, which combine farming basics, tips and examples of life on a working South Dakota farm. He said he estimates that approximately 60% of his viewers come from a farming background of some kind, but the other 40% appear to be relative newcomers who are interested in the process of farming and viewing daily life in rural America.
It’s perfect for someone who enjoys filming work he is familiar with and talking about it with viewers around the world. And it’s something that brought him to the attention of YouTube itself, which was establishing the United States of YouTube. The campaign highlights people making an impact on YouTube and those who have learned skills on YouTube in order to impact their communities, according to a statement from the company.
Through an interactive map, people can explore creators and small business owners from across all 50 states.
“(YouTube’s) whole thing is learning and getting to know the world. You can watch how-to videos, and it really brings the United States together,” Sonne said. “They reached out to me when they were choosing some of the bigger YouTubers in each state.”
As the only featured YouTuber from South Dakota in the campaign, he has joined others from around the country in displaying their craft and skills. Other members in the showcase include a teacher/artist from North Dakota, a fashion designer from Texas and a seamstress from Pennsylvania.
The campaign has fed more viewers and subscribers to Sonne and blossomed his following more than he could have first expected.
“I never really set out to have a big YouTube channel. It really happened by accident. A couple of videos started getting views and I just went with it,” Sonne said.
Sonne said his viewership is relatively small compared to some established YouTubers, but he has had some successes. His most-viewed video is footage of trenching work to address drainage issues on the farm, which has drawn over 1 million views.
“We had an approach that was holding back a bunch of water, so we trenched it out with a backhoe,” Sonne said. He credits a good video title and selecting a good thumbnail — the still image that viewers see of a video before watching it — with effectively enticing viewers to watch.
Sonne said his channel is monetized, meaning he makes money from people viewing the videos. He said he earned about $1,000 a month from the videos when he was in college, and that has improved as he has increased his video quality and output.
That is nice, Sonne said, but the video log of his family’s days and nights on the farm are providing information and entertainment to millions around the world. That means a lot to him, as well, and he’s curious what the future holds should he continue to put in the time opening his farm to a wider audience.
Sometimes working the camera and narrating to the audience can become a bit of a chore in itself, he said. But so far the extra effort has been worth it, even if it does take some work.
“I do ponder where it’s going if I keep this up. If I keep this up for 20 years, what would that be like,” Sonne asked. “At the end of the day, I am a farmer and I like to farm and not have to worry about the camera and talking. The days off (from filming) are nice, but there are also thoughts nagging that maybe you should have that camera. I don’t usually get too far away from the camera.”
Sonne said picking his focus for his upcoming videos has been easy. It’s almost harvest season, and he said he is anxious to get out into the field and bring more farm life videos to those who are interested in learning about farming, are experienced farmers themselves or are simply curious.
As often happens, he expects there will be challenges and unexpected surprises, Sonne said. When those challenges arise, he’ll have his camera nearby to document it and how Sonne Farms overcomes them.
“Day in and day out we’re getting some corn and soybeans in the bins, and there’s always something that goes wrong,” Sonne laughs. “Everything that goes wrong is bittersweet. It makes the day as a farmer tough, but it gets more viewers on YouTube.”
The Sonne Farms channel and the channels of the other 49 United States of YouTube creators can be found by clicking states on the map found at www.youtube.com/howyoutubeworks/usofyoutube.