Welcome to the real farmers of TikTok
The sun is out and Will Young, 23, better known to his 900,000 TikTok followers as “Farmer Will”, is cruising around his family’s farm in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, in a muddy utility vehicle. Tall, blond, sporting a black boiler suit, with a strong jaw and a short back and sides, he’s the handsome protagonist of his very own rural reality show. He’s also the first farmer I’ve ever met who has an agent. But it doesn’t seem to have gone to his head. As we bounce over grassy knolls, passing through wide metal gates and checking that the sheep are accounted for, he shares his hopes of starting a petting zoo.
They already have the sheep, about 4,000 of them (2,500 are lambs). And Young’s mum, Jenny, recently bought five alpacas, who have been named after Greek gods. He also has two pet pigs, Timon and Pumbaa, after Disney’s loveable Lion King duo. Then his petting zoo would just need some goats and cows. “Oh, it’d be a lovely life, wouldn’t it?” he sighs. “Having all the animals and people around to see them.” He beams into the country air. “I’d love to have some cows knocking about.”
Young is a happy-go-lucky kind of guy (his words, not mine). He really does love farming, though, and wants more people to get a taste for it. Or at least to understand it better. Until the petting zoo comes to fruition, TikTok — that pandemic-era portal into the lives of others — will have to do. It’s been more than two years since he started posting videos to the app. Today, his followers can enjoy a carefree mix of welly-clad twerking, prolapsing sheep (and what to do in the case of) and lots and lots of lambs.
In one recent post, Young narrates as his flock is taken for shearing: “I can just tell she’s buzzing for that hot-girl summer look.” In another, he dances to Lizzo against a backdrop of blank-faced alpacas. Many posts feature Young cuddling a lamb beneath captions that read: “Me on my way to play with lambs and not do any work”, “POV [point of view] when you’re my favourite lamb” or simply “Sorry dad”. In the comments beneath one video, Young mentions the petting zoo idea. “Can we pet you?” someone replies. “Asking for a friend.”
Young’s videos attract hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of views. He’s part of a growing community of millennial and Gen Z farmers using TikTok, many of whom started posting during lockdown, when the platform enjoyed a boom in users. There were so-called “farmfluencers” on social media before this, of course. Hannah Jackson (@theredshepherdess) has shared her first-generation farming journey on Twitter and Instagram since moving to Cumbria in 2014 and last year published a popular autobiography. Lancashire-based farmer Tom Pemberton posted his first video to YouTube in 2016; he now boasts 458,000 subscribers and presents BBC3 tractor-racing programme The Fast and the Farmer-ish.
But during the first UK lockdown, many farmers joined TikTok simply as a novelty or to stave off boredom — only to find that rural life had a particular appeal for those trapped at home. Many, including Jessica West (@missfarming) and her showjumping calf Mooana, and Elerei Williams (@farmer_lel) and her sheepdog Cwin, enjoy a significant audience. For those after something coarser, Drew Steel (@dr3wmeister), who has 345,000 followers, delivers acerbic retorts to critics of his dairy farm in a rolling Scottish burr.
It’s a turbulent time for British agriculture: the rising cost of feed, fuel and fertiliser has squeezed profit margins. Worker shortages and Brexit have destabilised many farms. When the UK government asked farmers for their reaction to its vision for the future of farming, which will see the EU Common Agricultural Policy and its subsidies replaced with domestic schemes to balance food production with the needs of the natural world, two-thirds of respondents (68 per cent) said that they were not at all confident in it. As for the public, food prices are rising sharply and food shortages loom. It’s never felt more important for producers and consumers to understand each other better.
And it’s public perception that keeps many farmers up at night: according to the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution charity (RABI), 30 per cent cite this as a cause of stress. On TikTok it’s clear that farmers are here for more than just a conversation about supply and demand. Food and farming have come under particular scrutiny in recent years, and with this has come a rise in eco-conscious consumption. The number of vegans in the UK quadrupled between 2014 and 2019, according to the Vegan Society. Although this translates to only 1.2 per cent of the population, far more people are now consuming less meat and dairy than before; oat milk, for example, has gone mainstream.
Amid reports of the cruelty of industrial agriculture, many young farmers working on smaller, family-run farms want to show a different side to their work. In February, a BBC Panorama investigation into animal abuse on a Welsh dairy farm prompted a slew of TikTok responses. “I had to address this,” said Jess Reynolds (@farmerjess02) in a video that attracted more than 100,000 views. “They went to one farm . . . and this farm just happened to be a bad farm . . . now they’ve made it look like all us dairy farmers abuse our cows, rip ’em away from their calves, without actually stating the facts.” She followed with clips of her own cows going into the dairy, and calves chomping on hay: “Do these calves look abused? No.”
For these farmers it’s about pride in a way of life. As for urbanites, or anyone who labours before the cold glow of a computer screen, this pastoral corner of TikTok can be mesmerising: video snapshots that flip from cutesy and escapist to revolting and revealing. It’s a glimpse into an age-old profession that most of us take for granted. There’s drama, dancing and lots of mud. Welcome to the real farmers of TikTok.
Young is a fifth-generation farmer. His great-grandfather Walter bought the land we’re now standing on and built the farmhouse behind us. It’s a simple country house, with a terrace overlooking rolling pastures. In more recent years, a bungalow was built beside it, where Young’s grandparents live today. His grandfather had two daughters before Young’s father, Andrew, was born in 1967. He had been determined to keep trying until they had a boy, believing that only a son could keep the farm going. Young tells me that his grandfather has only cried twice in his life: “Once when my father was born, and once when my older brother was.”
Young didn’t grow up with the same pressures as his father. “He was pretty much forced into it,” he says. “From a very early age, it was like, ‘You’re going to be a farmer and you don’t have a choice.’” Andrew took a different tack. He encouraged Will and his older brother, Thomas, to go out into the world to find their calling. “And obviously the farm was here if we wanted it.”
Plan A? Become a footballer. Young was pretty good, getting a place in Watford FC Academy, but by the age of 13 it felt like too much of a commitment. After struggling through sixth-form, Young tried the white-collar route his brother had taken. He started out in accounting, but after a year he’d had enough. His brother still works in London; Young returned to the farm. “It was a lovely moment when I sat down and told my grandfather,” he says. “He wanted the family tradition [kept] alive.” He shows his grandparents his TikTok videos sometimes. His gran takes to them more than his grandad. “He is very old-fashioned,” says Young, sympathetically. “And some of those dances . . . he’s just like, ‘What’s going on?’”
As for his dad — Young’s boss — TikTok-time took a little negotiation. Andrew would find him hiding out in the polytunnel practising a dance, filming it or scrolling through his phone in search of trending tracks. “He’d be like, ‘It’s been three hours, where have you been? What work have you done?’” says Young. “And I’d be kicking and screaming, saying, ‘Why won’t you let me do it?’” Eventually the pair found a balance: Young accepts that the farm comes first, and a new dance routine to Cardi B’s hit “WAP” comes second. To date, Andrew has not yet made a cameo. But Thomas jumps at the opportunity: the brothers stomp around in boots, twerking on hay bales. “Oh, he loves the attention,” says Young. “He’ll come home for the weekend with 10 dances all planned out.”
We feed the pigs, then the alpacas escort us back to the farmhouse, where Andrew is on the lawn fixing a mower, looking every inch the part: dark-green trousers, navy quilted jacket, tweed flat cap, puffing on a vape. He joins us for coffee on the terrace. “I suppose I live in a different world, a different generation,” he says, sipping from a mug with a cartoon llama on it (mine has a picture of a sheep). “But I think it is good for the industry to show a different side, because we’re obviously at times portrayed as” — he lowers his voice — “murderers.” He appreciates, with a gruff sort of pride, that Young shows people “the caring side” of farming. Or, as one TikTok commenter put it: “You’re slaying, not slaughtering!”
Young never really planned for internet fame. His profile blew up after his second post, in April 2020: a 60-second video of a lambing, set to a thumping tech-house track. Between delivering the lamb and rubbing it to warm it up, Young pulses to the beat and waves his hand to the drop. He gives the newborn a victory jiggle for the camera. “Just bringing life into this world,” reads the caption.
Today, even he admits he went in a bit hard. The video did well, then a week or so later, the animal rights charity PETA got wind of it. It reposted the clip to its one million-plus followers on Instagram: “This farmer is a disgusting creep!” it said. “He’s dancing over her body as she gives birth!” Young went on the defensive. This was one of thousands of lambs he’d delivered. “It was just two hooves and a head, pull it out, job done,” he tells me, his hands casually slicing and tugging at the air. “I’d never have got the camera out for a situation I wasn’t in control of.”
Gradually, the death threats gave way to messages of support, often from people who hadn’t understood what his work entailed or even given it much thought at all. Perhaps, Young realised, techno-lambing hadn’t done his craft justice. He shared another video of a sheep giving birth, only this time he dialled back the dance music in favour of a detailed commentary. “And that got three million more views than the previous one,” he tells me proudly, though he still seems a little surprised.
Since then, Young has cultivated a TikTok persona that merges sassy, over-the-top farm antics with more wholesome, educational content. Over the past two years, his followers have learnt about all the stages of sheep farming and lambing, from taking his pregnant sheep to get scanned and vaccinated to the stages of a “wet adoption”, when a lamb that can’t be raised by its own mother is rubbed in the fluids of another newborn at birth, so that both lambs will be accepted by the ewe. Young’s dancing has also improved considerably. He’s not a particularly political person. He’s motivated to illuminate “what actually happens” on farms and, possibly, give his viewers something they’ve never seen before, as he puts it, “in an entertaining way”.
Up in Yorkshire, Joe Seels, 34, is shooting for just that. Seels, who runs a beef and arable farm, set up a TikTok account (@joeseels) in November 2021 and already has more than 45,000 followers. “I just wanted to show what we do everyday,” he tells me. “That we look after our animals. We have a nice time when we’re working. We’re having fun.”
His most successful video was shot after one of his barns burned down in an arson attack. In it, the camera pans across a grassy field to face Seels, cap on, white teeth grinning through his beard, standing before a smouldering wreck. “Morning!” he says in his broad Yorkshire accent. “The thing I love about days like these” — he pauses, smiles and shakes his head — “it can only get better, can’t it!” Unexpected carnage is the norm for farmers, says Seels, and arson is common. Then there’s bad weather, disease. Young tells me he once found that hundreds of their sheep had been killed in a dog attack. Bodies scattered everywhere. “It was horrific,” he says. “With animals, there are big highs and lows.”
Like Young, Seels was born into farming. He also tried a corporate job, after going to university, but wound up back home doing what he loves. As his TikTok bio reads: “What would I do if I won the lottery? Keep farming until the money ran out!”
The sector could do with a bit more of his youthful vigour. Agriculture, which employs just under half a million people in the UK (including seasonal workers), has an ageing workforce. More than a third are over the age of 65. Only 3 per cent are under 35.
Seels wants to promote farming to those who aren’t born into it. Show it’s not a dawn-to-dusk grind. That they generally work conventional hours, and have lives outside of work. He often features his apprentice, Emily, in his videos. “She’s not from farming stock and she’s as good a farmer as me,” he says, proudly. Besides, he adds, it’s not like back in his dad’s day when farming was a basic labouring job. “We need people who can use computers, use technology and embrace it,” he says. Sure, there’s TikTok, but Seels also uses open-source software and GPS to program DIY automated tractors.
When it comes to perceptions, Seels reckons that the big problem for British farmers is that farming is sold to the public in two formats. “It’s either like Countryfile, where you’ve got some rare breed pigs and [people are] making artisan cheese, which is really nice but not exactly feeding the nation. Or it’s activists exposing stuff, usually in livestock farming. So if you’re not producing artisan cheese . . . people are like, ‘Oh, so you’re abusing animals,’ and it’s like, ‘Well, no.’”
Charlotte Ashley, 33, is a farmer from Cumbria with almost 90,000 followers on TikTok (@charlotteashleyfarm). You can catch her effing and blinding as she breaks up a fight involving a cow called Nuisance and dancing to “Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinéad O’Connor while she waits for the silage man. If she could convey anything to the public, she tells me, it would be the truth. Total transparency, with a touch of humour. “You can’t argue with that,” she says.
For Ashley, the disconnect between the public and farming, people and food, “is colossal”. But she believes farmers need to break from tradition and get better at opening up. This would benefit the farming community, she reckons, because a tendency to gloss over the job’s challenges is one reason so many suffer from poor mental health (according to RABI, 36 per cent of farmers are likely to be depressed).
But it would also address what she sees as valid questions and concerns that the public have about agriculture. “I think the image portrayed of farming, in a way, it’s not far wrong,” she says. “Environmentally, we all must do better. You can’t walk around saying, ‘That doesn’t apply to me.’ We need to realise people are interested in us and the impact we’re having.”
But on FarmTok you never know where the critics will come from. Ashley’s account took off thanks to a video she posted of her hair-drying a calf that was born during winter, warming it up by the Aga. “It got millions of comments,” she says. “It was just vegans and farmers arguing. The more they argued, the more viral it went.”
On the flipside, an educational video she posted about another adoption technique in which the skin of a dead calf is put around a live one got a “pretty good response”. It was dubbed to Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2 and had a trigger warning: “If you’re soft, keep scrolling.” Ashley was proud to have made a relatively palatable, educational piece about an otherwise grisly process. That is, until some farmers turned on her. “They thought I was doing farming a disservice,” she says. “Pandering to the public, with the namby-pamby music.”
As we drink coffee and look out over the land he has worked for a lifetime, Will Young’s dad, Andrew, tells me he never expected his son to come home to the farm at all. “That was never the intention,” he says. And he values the fact that a new generation of farmers will do things differently. Work a bit less. Take the odd holiday. Do a bit of TikTok. It’s Young’s relationship to publicity — to exposure — that is particularly striking to him. “I was always told as a young man never to let the media on your farm,” says Andrew. “Because they just need that one snapshot, that one picture that means nothing, and that will portray who you are.”
The real farmers of TikTok are hardly shielded from public backlash. If anything, they’re facing it head on. They are taking ownership of their narrative, though, and bringing outsiders into the fold. In Young’s case, it’s also keeping him keen on the job. It gives him another channel to express his interest in animals. Petting zoos aside, he admits that his dream would be to present his own television show, and I wonder if TikTok could ultimately be his road out of the family farm. “The thing about farm life”, he tells me, “is that your life is pretty much planned out for you. That’s what I like about the TikTok stuff. You’ve no idea what’s gonna happen next.”
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