The mid-October afternoon was bronze and warm, perfect for harvesting. Derek Klingenberg, 34, and his younger brother Grant were running the grain car while their father, Vernon, steered the combine through the last spiky rows of corn.
They were almost finished when a text buzzed in on Derek Klingenberg’s phone.
“What does the farmer say?”
When he read those five words, sent from a buddy in Wichita, Klingenberg remembers shutting down for about three seconds. The stubbly tan field, the machines and the whistling meadowlarks vanished while his mind worked out the details of his next YouTube video.
He would make a parody of “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say)?,” a Norwegian music video that had gone viral a month earlier, and it would be big, really big.
But he had to move fast if his video was going to ride the cresting popularity of “The Fox.”
He yelled up to his brother in the cab of the grain car, “I’ve got to go home and get a camera.”
His brother replied, “Are you kidding?”
Klingenberg returned in less than an hour with his JVC camera and began filming the combine up close — so close, a corncob rocketing out the back nailed him in the head.
It was worth it.
“What Does the Farmer Say?” blew the doors off Klingenberg’s elusive goal of 1 million views, one he had failed to reach with two dozen previous videos over five years. Within two months of its release Oct. 29, “Farmer” rang up more than 4 million views.
In November, Klingenberg was interviewed by a Tasmanian radio show, and Fox News sent a limo to pick him up at the farm and drive him to Wichita to record a live segment. CNN linked to the video, and a German television program tweeted it.
In December, the original “Fox” video was named Top Trending Video of 2013 by YouTube. Ylvis, the Norwegian duo that created the original, uploaded a video in which it reviewed parodies of its hit and picked “Farmer” as its favorite.
The sudden success hasn’t changed Klingenberg’s life much. He’s still planting wheat, feeding cattle, mending fence and helping his wife, Kara, take care of the couple’s three daughters, ages 5, 3 and 1.
“I like it just the way it is right now. Farming is what I do; video is a hobby on the side,” he says. But it’s a hobby he needs. “I had to do something creative or I would go crazy in the head.”
He sometimes ponders the unusual nature of his fame when he’s out breaking ice or feeding cattle.
“It’s weird,” Klingenberg says. “Millions of people all over the world watch my stuff, but I haven’t left the farm. I’m just reading about it on my phone.”
The oldest of three boys, Klingenberg was born and raised on land his grandfather settled in 1938 on the flat, fertile plains of east-central Kansas.
Like many Kansas farm kids, he went off to Kansas State University after high school and earned a degree in agriculture. He met a girl from a nearby town at church camp, married her and started a family in the house his grandparents once lived in.
Klingenberg’s brother Grant lives on the same dirt road with his wife and daughter. His parents, Vernon and Carol, live less than a mile away. His brother Brett, a pastor in Beatrice, Neb., is also part of Klingenberg Family Farms.
The Klingenbergs love the farming life. But from an early age, a restless creative impulse set Derek apart.
“Growing up, he just hated sitting in the house watching TV,” Brett Klingenberg says. “Derek always wanted to be outside, and he was always coming up with scenarios or games. Grant and I were lazier. Derek was always trying to motivate us.”
In the late 1980s, when the Klingenbergs got a camcorder, 8-year-old Derek commandeered it. He made action films, many set in a backyard platform tree house.
Derek was always the director, and Brett and Grant did most of the acting. Carol Klingenberg remembers movies in which her sons would soar off the platform on a rope
swing dressed as pirates, swords drawn. Derek would use editing tricks to make it look like they had landed on top of their foes.
“Once Derek made a stuffed dummy, and it looked like he was jumping off the grain bin,” his mother recalls. “I never liked that one — it was too scary.”
Derek was adept at special effects. His mother remembers him creating “smoke” by piling dust on a mousetrap and springing it.
Despite the derring-do at home, Carol Klingenberg says her son was quiet in public and at school.
Today, both those aspects are present in the 6-foot-tall farmer, father and video star. Klingenberg’s straight white teeth and bright blue eyes are straight out of Central Casting, but there is a reserve behind his direct gaze and ready smile.
He keeps his answers short, like sound bites, as he gives a tour of the farm shop, moving from the front office full of taxidermied deer heads into the large equipment bay where a 15-by-20-foot green screen is mounted to a wall behind a tractor.
The green screen allows Klingenberg to film himself lip-syncing in front of video footage or photo stills that he has previously shot. It is the most recent addition to his modest inventory of filmmaking equipment. He declines to say how much he has spent for his camera, Sony Vegas editing system and the green screen — “Farmers don’t like to talk about money” — but similar items bought online today would total $5,000 to $7,000.
Klingenberg says he earned back the money he spent by filming a couple of commercials for a local grocery store and co-op. The co-op ad was his first foray into parody: “White Pickup Truck” was based on Toby Keith’s hit “Red Solo Cup.”
In a way, Klingenberg’s phenomenal YouTube success was made possible by the failure of his first musical love, a bluegrass band called the Possum Boys that he formed after college with his brothers and a couple of friends. The band played in local churches and recorded an album but broke up five years ago when two members moved away.
Doug Krehbiel is co-owner of Krehbiel Recording in Newton, Kan. Standing next to the soundboard in his studio and holding a Possum Boys CD, Krehbiel says, “When the Possum Boys broke up, it was very sad for Derek, but one of the best things to ever happen for YouTube viewers.”
Brett Klingenberg also thinks video is a better outlet for his brother.
“When we were the Possum Boys, it was almost like he would try to entertain during shows between songs and even during songs. Once, he told me he felt this pressure to make sure everyone has a good time. I never felt it was a natural fit,” Brett said.
Klingenberg says he was “distraught” when the band broke up, and he began making videos to fill the time.
“I quickly learned I had a knack for editing,” says Klingenberg, who has never had any training. “I have no idea why.”
Krehbiel remembers Klingenberg coming by the studio to show him the first video he made, using a song off the Possum Boys album called “Bumblebees in the Hay.” Krehbiel couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
“Derek is just brilliant. He’s the lyricist, he’s the director, he’s the actor, he’s the cinematographer and he’s the special effects guy. That’s usually five people on the credits. I don’t think he realizes how good the videos are, how much they jump out in terms of technical quality,” Krehbiel says.
Klingenberg uses the farm equipment at his disposal to great effect, Krehbiel says. “In Hollywood that would cost you $100,000 to buy equipment that would move you around to get some of those aerial or sweeping shots.”
In the opening shot of “What Does the Farmer Say?”, for instance, Klingenberg drops down into the frame on the scoop of a front loader, and the next three minutes are a fast-moving montage of rural landscapes (star-blanketed skies, swirling funnel clouds and vast sunsets), farm chores and dance moves.
The lyrics are a mashup of blue-collared messages (“calloused hands, a working man/taking care of fertile soil”) and clean humor (“his arms are tan/his legs are white”) that reflect a world not normally associated with techno music. And then there’s what the farmer says: “Yip, ha!” (moving cattle), “Vroom!” (driving big machines), “Yawn!” (curling up for a nap in the tractor cab), “Feed!” (a baby calf with a bottle) and “Wave!” (with the index finger only, at other pickups on dirt roads).
If you watch Klingenberg’s 28 YouTube videos in chronological order, you can see the evolution of his special effects. The ones on display in “What Does the Farmer Say?” are the most sophisticated yet.
In their video naming “The Farmer” the best of “The Fox” parodies, Ylvis called a dancing tractor in one scene “a great detail.”
Klingenberg says to get that effect he “just” let air of the tractor tires, set the tractor on a jack, let out the jack to drop the tractor, reversed the motion on video, repeated it and set it to a beat.
“It’s genius,” Krehbiel says.
Another sophisticated effect in “Farmer” is a scene where Klingenberg appears to be standing in front of Arrowhead Stadium when a long pass is thrown from the stands that he catches over his shoulder. After Klingenberg told Krehbiel how he did that — filming Grant throwing a long pass, then creating a football shape that grew larger and twisted in the air as it got closer and adding it to the scene frame by frame, then suspending a real football in the air on a powerful blower in front of the green screen so he could grab it — Krehbiel asked, “Did you call Spike Lee?”
YouTube videos can make money for their creators in two main ways. YouTube itself can place ads on videos and pay the artist based on so many thousands of hits.
More successful and prolific creators have contracts with media brokers who sell longer, TV commercial-type ads that run before the video is shown.
“If you see an ad that is skipable, that is an ad YouTube sold. If it is 30 seconds and non-skipable, that is ours or a company like ours,” says Joe Gregus, video network manager for Ag Hub, a media buyer in Detroit that signed a contract with Klingenberg. “If YouTube sells an ad on his site, he gets to keep all the money, and with our ads, like the 30-second Chevy Silverado ad at the beginning of ‘Farmer,’ there is a revenue split.”
Klingenberg says the money he makes on YouTube is “a little extra,” not enough to support his family, and he does not intend to make it his primary income source. He declined to say how much he has earned, but said it is less than $50,000.
Ag Hub focuses on content likely to appeal to consumers in three segments: production agriculture, rural lifestyle and hobby farming. The company was just launched this year and signed Klingenberg in April, before “What Does the Farmer Say?”
At that time, Klingenberg’s biggest video was “Ranching Awesome,” a parody of “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore. It had around 200,000 hits at the time.
The success of “Farmer” exceeded Ag Hub’s expectations, Gregus says. “We have about 400 partners like Derek, and his video became the most popular on our network. Four million views is rare even for people who do it full time.”
Gregus thinks the combination of Klingenberg’s personality and technical skills explains his success. “Derek is an absolutely likable guy, and that comes through in his videos. And his unique edits and cuts are pretty entertaining. We don’t have a large number of people who can make a cow dance.”
Of course, viral video success plays out differently in a small town.
Sitting in an armchair in his bright, spacious ranch house, Vernon Klingenberg is asked what it is like knowing his son is an international video star. Vernon’s eyes widen slightly as he askd, “Is he?”
Derek Klingenberg, bouncing his 3-year-old daughter in his lap on the sofa, laughs and says, “That is all you need to know. When I tried to tell him that Upworthy had linked to my video and it was pushing my views up, he had no idea what I was talking about. He started talking about something else.”
Klingenberg’s parents say people at their church and in town “know” about their son’s video, but they don’t comment much.
But a funny thing happened to Vernon at the tax appraisers office, he says. When he went in to pay his taxes, and Derek’s name was on the paperwork, he asked the woman helping him if she recognized the name. No. So he asked if she had seen the video “What Does the Farmer Say?” Thirty times, she told him.
“That’s my son,” Vernon Klingenberg said. “No it’s not. You’re making that up,” she said. Then she brought the video up on her screen and was mightily impressed when Vernon proved his case by pointing out a scene in which he is banging a stick on the ground behind some cattle.
Klingenberg says his only VIP moments have come at a co-op symposium, where several farmers came up and told him they had seen his video, and at his pastor’s holiday open house, when a visitor from Nebraska asked to have her picture taken with him.
That’s about it, but that’s all right with Klingenberg. He says YouTube has really changed him, not in how he gets treated, but in the musical forms and styles it has exposed him to. “I really like rap. Not the lyrics, but the beat and the rhymes. I want to give people clean awesomeness,” he says.
The day after Christmas, Klingenberg posted a new video called “Feeding Cattle in the USA,” a parody of “Party in the USA” by Miley Cyrus that features no nudity, but a twerking cow.