PEACHAM, Vt. — The sweet smell of hay rose off the earth on a recent evening as Morgan Gold strode across his farmyard in heavy boots. He crossed the paddock, scanning for new eggs, water levels, infected peck wounds, rips in the fence line.
But mainly — let’s be honest — he was looking for content.
Although Gold sells poultry and eggs from his duck farm in Vermont’s northeast corner, most of what he produces as a farmer is, well, entertainment.
Gold, who is short and stocky, with the good-natured ease of a stand-up comedian, does his chores while carrying a digital camera in one hand and murmuring into a microphone.
Then, twice a week, like clockwork, he posts a short video on YouTube about his exploits as a neophyte farmer, often highlighting failures or pratfalls. Keeping a close eye on analytics, he has boosted his YouTube audiences high enough to provide a steady advertising revenue of around $2,500 to $4,000 a month, about eight times what he earns from selling farm products.
This part of New England is rocky, hilly and isolated, and generations of small farmers have cast about for new ways to scrape out a living: the sleigh rides, the alpacas, the therapy ponies, the pick-your-own hemp. It is a new thing, though, to make farm life into reality TV.
Gold, 40, has learned the hard way — he tried to take a month off last winter — that any gap in his YouTube publication schedule results in a steep drop-off in audience. So he keeps a running list of themes that could be fodder for future videos. It reads, in part:
Should I Feed My Dog Eggs?
Don’t Trust This Duck
My Homestead Is a Dumpster Fire
What Does My Guard Dog Do All Day?
He has learned, through trial and error, what works with an audience. The sheepdog-mounted GoPro didn’t work. (“People were like, ‘Ten seconds and I was puking,’” said his wife, Allison Ebrahimi Gold.) Slow, sumptuous drone footage of his sun-dappled 150 acres, land porn for wistful cubicle dwellers — that definitely works.
Character development works, as demonstrated by Gold’s most popular video, “Our Freakishly Huge Duck (This Is Not NORMAL),” which, as he would put it, blew the doors off. Slow-motion footage of waggling goose butts set to a bouncy, whimsical orchestral soundtrack works.
But few things compel audiences, he came to realize, more than a real-life setback. He came to this realization last summer when a mink broke into his duck hutch, leaving its interior spattered with eggs and blood and feathers.
“It was one of the most depressing days of my life,” he said, “but at the same time, I’m thinking, ‘How is the audience going to react to this sort of thing?’”
The next videos, which featured freaky night-vision footage of the offending mink, helped boost Gold’s YouTube audience toward the 100,000-viewer threshold. And it helped him understand his own place in the universe of farmer influencers, which tilts heavily toward the how-to genre.
“The storytelling part is what I’m good at,” he said. “I’m not that good at the farming part.”
It is a paradox that the less financially viable small farming becomes, the more Americans want to experience it firsthand.
This idea is as old as the dude ranch; video streaming of farm life is only the most recent iteration. Amy Fewell, the founder of Homesteaders of America, said the number of farmers who earn substantial income off YouTube channels is steadily climbing and now stands at around 50.
Some of them earn money through product endorsement deals, like Al Lumnah, who posts videos five days a week from his farm in Littleton, New Hampshire.
It’s a lot of work: Lumnah wakes up at 3:30 a.m. so he can edit the previous day’s footage in time to post new video at 6 a.m., which his 210,000 regular viewers, who are scattered as far as Cambodia and India, have come to expect. “People will say, ‘It’s lunchtime here in Ukraine,’” Lumnah said.
Others, like Justin Rhodes, a farmer in North Carolina, have parlayed a giant YouTube audience into a dues-paying membership enterprise — he has 2,000 fans who pay annual fees of up to $249 for private instruction and direct communication via text message. “We don’t sell a single farm product,” Rhodes said. “Our farm product is education and entertainment.”
Gold, who moved to Vermont and started his YouTube channel four years ago, has not reached that point. He still has a full-time job as a marketing executive for an insurance company and so far has refused the endorsement deals. He has built up his flocks of chicken, geese and ducks to 100 and is hoping to add cows next spring.
He’s certainly captured the interest of the farmers who surround him in Peacham, Vermont, said Tom Galinat, a neighbor, who runs his family’s 550-acre farm.
Farmers here struggle to eke out a living from rocky, uneven soil and a hostile climate, and they are astounded — in some cases a little jealous — to discover that Gold is internet famous, he said.“He’s found a way to monetize farming with less physical labor,” Galinat said. “Some guys are like, this is silly, since he’s farming 20 ducks. But at the same time, he’s making more than other farmers who have 500 acres of land.”
But Galinat, who is also Peacham’s town clerk, counts himself among a younger generation of farmers who are learning from Gold.
“He has taught me I am no longer selling hay; I am selling a lifestyle,” he said. “He’s really selling himself — his emotions, his opinions, his downfalls, his successes. Boom! That’s it. That’s the way forward.”
As Gold’s audience has grown, he has at times been taken aback by the enthusiasm.
Several dozen viewers have driven all the way to Peacham and knocked on his door, hoping to buy eggs or talk about ducks, something his wife described as “really distressing.”
“Morgan is so vulnerable on film,” she said, “that people assume they know us as people.”
Most of it is nice, though. Viewers send handcrafted accessories for his outbuildings, like a plaque that says, in elaborate lettering, “Ye Olde Quack House.” When one of the Golds’ barn cats was hit by a car recently, at least 50 viewers offered cash to cover her medical bills.
Samier Elrasoul, a nursing student in Howell, Michigan, is so devoted to Gold’s videos that he got a vanity license plate reading QUACKN, in honor of the catchphrase — “Release the Quacken!” — that Gold exclaims when he frees his ducks from their hutch in the morning.
Elrasoul, 34, said the videos inspire him because he, too, has a dead-end job — he works as a supervisor at Starbucks — and he, too, harbors a dream of changing his life.
“Seeing some guy just like me, just dropping everything and doing what he’s passionate about, was very encouraging to see,” he said. “I’m like, wow, he’s living his dream.”For others, Gold’s farm has provided a haven in a difficult time. Charlotte Schmoll, who is 6 and lives in Portland, Oregon, spent days at the beginning of lockdown watching Gold’s videos over and over. She announced last month that she, too, plans to raise ducks in Vermont.
“One of the questions that comes up when we watch shows is, ‘Is this real? Did this happen?’” said her mother, Julie Schmoll. “That’s one of the things she liked about Mister Rogers and maybe she likes about the duck farmer: that he is also quote-unquote true, or real.”
Gold does wonder, sometimes, about what it means, in the long term, to make his life into a story. When the cat was hit by a car, he found himself reflexively converting the event into a script and stopped to ask himself who he was becoming.
“It’s like, how much is the experience, and how much is the packaging of the experience, and how do you distinguish between the two?” he said. “Because you almost go, ‘I had a duck die. Let me think about the first act here, and the second act.’”
And still, the show goes on. Late on a recent evening, Gold was putting finishing touches on a video about his dog, Toby, who has never quite grown into his intended role as a duck herder.
Early drafts of the video had focused on how much the dog had improved.
But there was something dishonest about that, Gold realized that evening, as he and his wife flung themselves around the paddock, trying to catch birds with string nets while the dog looked on placidly, thumping his tail.
Now, in the gathering dark, Gold was rewriting the ending to one that emphasized his acceptance of the dog’s true nature.
It’s always difficult to bring closure to a video, Allison Gold said. It was almost 9 o’clock, and she was hoping to go inside.
“You have to create an end,” she said. “Because the truth is, we do this every day, so there’s not really an end.”
But Gold, for his part, was pleased.
“I love it when a story has a good moral,” he said.