Jake Vermeer was enjoying a few beers at an industry meeting last winter when he thought it would be funny to try out TikTok.
“I started watching it, and at first, it was kind of stupid. But as you start watching it more, you get more and more addicted,” the young Camrose-area farmer said of the popular video-sharing social network.
“You kind of just admire it at first, and then you start to think, ‘I could do this.’”
And that’s just what Vermeer did, sharing random funny videos and amassing 4,500 followers in a four-month span. And so far, his experience with TikTok has been very different than some of the other social networks he uses.
“I have 1,500 followers on Twitter, and that took me like eight years to get,” he said. “With TikTok, it took like five seconds to get 5,000 followers. It’s all algorithm based, so you have the ability to go viral so much faster.”
The app only hit the market three years ago, but quickly caught on — it’s been downloaded 1.5 billion times. It’s estimated 500 million people use it daily, often watching dozens of videos (most of which are under a minute long, with many lasting just seconds). Lip-synching or dancing to hit songs is hugely popular but you can also do show-and-tells or just talk.
However, Vermeer can’t tell you the secret to success, which he describes as “completely random.” Somehow, the video app uses machine learning to figure out how engaging a given TikTok is — things such as views, likes, shares, and comments trigger its algorithm to show the video to more users. (Those who don’t generate that engagement die a quick death.)
Vermeer hasn’t quite perfected the formula yet, but he has gone viral.
“It’s tough to find what people will like,” he said. “My top video has 60,000 likes on it, and it’s just a video of me being an idiot walking beside the silage chopper taking a sample. I did a really cool educational one from our milking parlour, and I only got 300 likes. It’s so hit and miss on what people will like.”
But for him, it’s an opportunity to showcase life on the farm by “showing the lighter side to farming.”
“At first, I was just a kid having fun on TikTok and making random videos,” said Vermeer. “It started off really jokingly, but now lately, because I’m starting to get a following and I know how important it is to access people who don’t normally follow farming, I have been doing more farming videos and trying to focus on spreading the message.”
Mike Willms, a mixed farmer from the Lethbridge area, tailors his farm-related TikToks to a non-farm audience, and the response has been good so far.
“I concentrate my TikToks as much as I can on people who are outside of farming,” he said. “That way, when I do different things, it gives them an opportunity to ask questions. It’s amazing how often people do ask questions.”
One time, someone asked about calves being removed from their mothers, so he explained how it works “just to give them a better perception of what our real life is like.”
“It’s not all roses, but it’s also not as bad as some people like to make it out to be,” he said. “There are a lot of misconceptions about farming out there, but there are also a lot of people who want to know but don’t know how to find out. If they come across something like this, it gives them the opportunity to do so.”
Back to basics
That’s also the reason Willms doesn’t strictly follow farm accounts on TikTok.
“If you want to get out to consumers, you have to reach out to people who are outside of farming. That’s partly why I did it that way,” said Willms. “I figure how am I getting the information across to people who want to hear it if I’m just talking to farmers who already know it. It’s like you’re preaching to the choir.”
For Vermeer, the trick has been getting back to basics.
“I live and breathe farming and I’m into all these things that are so much further than the consumer wants to know or cares about,” he said. “So when we talk about the mundane things we do on a daily basis — things like milking a cow — it doesn’t interest me to post it, but sometimes you have to get past that because you know consumers do like it.”
Using TikTok to reach a new audience has been a “really cool opportunity” for the young farmer. Vermeer tends to use Twitter to connect with other farmers and people in the industry, while his farm’s Facebook page is geared more toward older consumers. TikTok is just a different way to show the realities of farm life to a different audience, he said.
“One of my favourite things on the farm is connecting with consumers through social media and just showing them what farming really is,” he said.
“The link between consumers and agriculture seems to be growing apart. That connection is starting to disappear. But people want to know where their product is coming from and who’s producing it and whether it’s being produced sustainably.
“It’s just about trying to relay that message over and over to the consumer so they understand it and they’re seeing it as many times as possible.”
But because TikToks can go viral so quickly, Vermeer urges farmers to be cautious when first using the app.
“I’m pretty anonymous — I don’t use my picture or my real name,” he said. “As farmers, we don’t want to be anonymous because we want to broadcast our farms, but you can go so viral so quickly. You have to be a little careful with that.”
The app also comes with a learning curve, he added, and it can be tricky to use its video creator. Vermeer’s advice: “Just upload a video from your camera roll.”
“A lot of farmers have videos on their phones already — a combine driving down the field. Everybody’s got videos of that. Start with that,” he said. “Just add a little bit of music behind it once you’re in the video creator, put a couple of hashtags in the description, post it, and see what happens.”
For Willms, the most important thing is “to just have fun and be yourself.”
“Don’t worry about what people will think or whether they’re going to like it,” he said. “Just do what you enjoy and people will follow.”