For farmer Dave Brandt, being a meme is honest work
Dave’s iconic image is all over the internet, but he’s been too busy pioneering sustainable agriculture techniques to notice.
Dave Brandt doesn’t particularly like memes.
“The only one I’ve ever looked at was mine,” he told me over the phone in between tasks around his 1200-acre farm in central Ohio (that day, he had to fix a combine, mail cornmeal to farm-to-table customers, and prepare for a public speaking engagement).
To non-farmers, Brandt is simply another character in the internet’s cast of memes: a friendly, flannel-shirt-clad portrait of a stereotypical farmer. His tagline? “It ain’t much, but it’s honest work.”
But while Brandt’s face is well known by young people online, he’s also a bona fide celebrity IRL among regenerative farmers as a “cover crop guru.” Dave Brandt’s farm in Carroll, Ohio was a birthplace for soil health principles, and his now-iconic photo was taken in 2015 when the United States Department of Agriculture wrote about Brandt’s farming tactics in an article called "Soil Health Campaign Turns Two: Seeks to Unlock Benefits on- and off-the-Farm.” It wasn’t until three years later that he unwittingly became a meme.
Dave Brandt’s image took off in a 2018 Reddit post captioned, “When your teacher asks you why you have submitted only one paper of 20 paper homework.” Hey, it ain’t much, but it’s honest work!
Then, he started getting recognized on the street. It first happened in January 2020, when he was visiting Illinois. “A couple was walking down the street and asked me for a picture,” Brandt says. “I thought, ‘okay, I don’t care, sure.’”
Meme vs. reality
Unlike the guy whose face is used as ‘the worst person you know,’ Brandt thinks it’s fun to be a meme. After all, “it ain’t much but it’s honest work” is a phrase he really does say all the time, at least according to his grandson.
When Brandt, now 75, is not working in the dirt or talking about dirt, he enjoys reading books with titles like Dirt and Dirt to Soil, and offering affectionate advice (mostly about agriculture). “I’ve probably made more mistakes than most of ya,” he once said to an audience of enraptured farmers in a presentation on his soil journey. On top of maintaining his Ohio farm, he spends about a third of his time on speaking engagements, going all around the world. In 2020, as his face was illuminated on smartphones, he was speaking at a NATO conference about soil and climate change.
He grew up at his grandfather’s farm and admits he was a “farm boy not very interested in school.” He was, he says, “more interested in daydreaming about tractors I could drive when I could get home.” He got married to his high school sweetheart, Kendra, and then two weeks later was drafted into the Vietnam War. Brandt spent two years in the Marine Corps working with armored vehicles at the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam. His experience with tractors “most definitely” helped him out. But when he returned to Ohio, tragedy struck. His father died in a tractor accident and Dave was forced to sell his farm and much of his equipment. When they started over the next year, Dave and Kendra didn’t have any tillage equipment to break up the soil.
In 1978, Dave Brandt decided to plant a cereal rye cover crop to deal with the erosion on his hilly clay soils with poor drainage, and he’s never looked back. He calls them the “anchor of a diverse crop rotation” which makes his offseason fields look like meadows instead of barren plots of land.
His crops aren’t particularly unique (mostly corn, soybeans, and wheat) but his novel cover cropping tactics make his practice unconventional. In the mid-’90s, his farm started using several mixes of cover crops whose roots could break up the soil better than tilling while regenerating the chemicals, such as nitrogen, that are paramount to healthy soil. It was a breakthrough: less input was getting him more output, and his soil was as rich and wormy as ever. In his three-and-a-half decades of farming, he’s drastically decreased his use of fertilizers, fungicide, herbicide, and insecticide, and his land blooms in the offseason with all sorts of vegetation — sunflowers, radishes, various grasses, and more.
It’s a family affair. “My son is a polymer chemist, and he works eight hours and 10 hours a day, then maybe works one hour or two in the evening on a farm,” Brandt said. His wife, Kendra, worked on the farm, too, before she died last year following a seven-year fight with cancer. His grandson works with him full-time.
The Brandt family operates Walnut Creek Seeds to provide education and materials to other farmers (including backyard gardeners) on cover cropping, and aims to prescribe farmers the best cover crops for their land. He hopes, if anything, that his digital stardom gets more people interested in regenerative farming. “Dupont and Bayer don't care about you or your soil or our wildlife,” he says.
Conversely, Brandt compares the plants of a cover crop blend to a family. “We’d like to have what I call a community working together,” he says. “We have all the plants doing their thing.”