Grant Hilbert always knew he wanted to be a farmer, but figured he'd have to work 20 or 30 years in another profession to afford to buy land in Iowa.
Turns out he needed just six years of playing video games.
Hilbert, 21, of Ankeny, made enough money from YouTube videos of him playing the Farming Simulator video game to help him buy 250 acres in Poweshiek and Mahaska counties that he now has planted in corn and soybeans.
Before anyone gets a mental image of a slacker getting rich off video games, know that Hilbert filmed, edited and posted a video nearly every day he was enrolled in classes at Iowa State University, where he earned a degree in agricultural business and economics in 2020.
The reason he has more than 1.3 million followers on his The Squad YouTube channel is because he comes up with fresh ideas for videos, including once when he and his friends built a racetrack within Farming Simulator and held a virtual race.
In a recent video — he still posts several Farming Simulator videos a week — Hilbert and Chandler Buch, who Hilbert hired to help film videos, role play buying a tractor at auction. The video had 55,000 views and 84 comments within 24 hours.
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Hilbert and a friend started The Squad channel in 2014, when they were in 10th grade, first playing an assortment of popular video games.
"Me and my buddy were business minded. We went into it knowing you could make some money from YouTube," he said.
Within a few months, the channel was just Hilbert, and he was mostly playing just Farming Simulator, a video game series developed by GIANTS software and launched in 2008 that lets players virtually grow crops, breed livestock and sell assets created from farming.
When Hilbert went to college in 2016, a new Farming Simulator version came out and Hilbert tapped into renewed interest. He took classes at ISU from about 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., filmed videos in the afternoon and then edited and posted the videos each night.
"I didn't have the fun college experience like a lot of other people; I was doing YouTube," he said.
Buying a farm
More than one-third of U.S. farmland was inherited or gifted by a family member and another 16 percent was purchased from a relative, according to a 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.
Hilbert couldn't do either of those things. His grandparents and uncles farm near Algona, but Hilbert's parents, Barney and Rita, moved from the farm to Ankeny, where Barney works with supply chains for Corteva and Rita is a home loan mortgage officer.
During his junior and senior years at ISU, Hilbert started scouting land brokerage websites looking for Iowa farmland.
He bought his first farm right after college graduation. He later bought two more farms in the same area of southern Poweshiek County and northern Mahaska County, near Montezuma. All three parcels, totaling about 250 acres, cost more than $1.8 million combined.
"I am borrowing a lot of money to buy these farms," he said. "I use a lot of leverage. I would say 60 percent (of the down payment) was from videos and 40 percent from investments."
Hilbert owns Bitcoin and invested in the MiningStore, a bitcoin mining site in Grundy County.
"Kudos to him for finding an avenue to do what he loves," said Iowa Farm Bureau Federation President Brent Johnson, when he heard about Hilbert. "There's a lot of farmers on social media telling their stories. I absolutely love that."
Everything Hilbert does on the farm is fodder for videos for the Grant Hilbert channel on YouTube, which has 129,000 subscribers and 50 videos.
His May 16 video "First Day of Corn Planting 2022!" has more than 69,000 views. The 19-minute video starts off with Hilbert selecting among five vintage caps to wear for the occasion. Then he and brother, Spencer, climb in the John Deere planter and get to work.
"We can crank it up to 12 mile, well not 12 mile an hour" he said. "We can crank it up to …"
"Twelfth gear," Spencer added.
"Twelfth gear, about eight and a half mile an hour," Grant Hilbert said.
Fans of the 1994 movie "Dumb and Dumber" will enjoy the April 21, 2020, video "We Bought a NEW Tractor! (John Deere 1026R)," which has nearly 935,000 views.
Hilbert said he hasn't had any epic fails, but even small glitches can make compelling videos. Take, for example, "Noobs Rebuilding a Hydraulic Cylinder" and "Spilling Corn on the Go!"
"There's a lot more older audience on the real-life channel," Hilbert said. "They might be retired or just wanting to watch a young guy farming."
He estimates about 40 percent of his audience on either channel is a crossover from the other channel.
Hilbert learns how to make the most of his farm repairs from — you guessed it — YouTube. But he also has met some helpful neighbors and gets labor and advice from his dad. Because running a real farm is different from a video game.
"Any normal person who understands a little bit about agriculture could easily play Farming Simulator," he said. "Going and doing the real thing is a lot tougher."