The Farm Babe – Influencer in Ag
- Michelle Miller, The Farm Babe
Jamie discusses all things agriculture with Michelle Miller, aka The Farm Babe. After living the city life Michelle’s life took a big turn when she moved to a farm in Iowa. It was there that she uncovered what she thought she knew about farming was wrong. She soon became one of agriculture’s fiercest advocates.
Episode 48 | 26 min
Michelle Miller aka “The Farm Babe” is an internationally recognized keynote speaker, writer, and online influencer. She’s working to bridge the gap between consumers and farmers by being a champion for global agriculture.
Michelle grew up in Wisconsin before getting her bachelor’s degree in Los Angeles, CA. She went from working at Gucci on Rodeo Drive to moving to Iowa to farm. She brings a unique perspective as a global traveler turned farm girl, and now works to give a voice to farmers and science as she attempts to share the truths of modern agriculture.
Jamie Duininck (00:02):
This is The Water Table.
Speaker 2 (00:05):
… a chance to hear the agricultural side of these issues.
Jamie Duininck (00:09):
… a place for people to go find information and education.
Speaker 3 (00:13):
Water management is just going to become even more critical into the future.
Jamie Duininck (00:19):
… how misunderstood what we do is.
Speaker 2 (00:22):
I would encourage people to open their minds and listen to this dialogue.
Jamie Duininck (00:31):
Today, we welcome Michelle Miller, AKA The Farm Babe, to The Water Table podcast. Excited about this episode and just listening to her share what has kind of happened in her life and how she got to where she is. With an average social media reach of two to three million per month and 200,000 followers, Michelle has made a name for herself as a dedicated myth-buster in the food industry and has influenced corporations as powerful as Burger King. Michelle brings a unique perspective as a big-city globetrotter turned farm girl and plants the seed inside the minds of those looking to understand the truth about modern agricultural production. With one of the most popular and vibrant food farming social media followings, The Farm Babe, is the real deal. Michelle has been on stage among leading industry experts as one of the most well-known voices in agriculture.
Michelle, we’re excited that you’re joining us here on The Water Table. Welcome.
Michelle Miller (01:35):
Thanks for having me. The only thing that’s different about that blurb on my website I need to update is I do have a lot more followers than that now.
Jamie Duininck (01:42):
You do. You do.
Michelle Miller (01:46):
I have to update my website, but that’s what it would say on TheFarmBabe.com. Thanks.
Jamie Duininck (01:52):
Isn’t that interesting how fast things go too. That’s really what we’re talking about is getting the word out, whatever you’re dealing with. The Water Table is about managing water on the farm and in agriculture. It’s really what happened in your life is as the social media and just how things go, the world you lived in, you were seeing things from that perspective around the GMOs and organic foods and things like that. We really weren’t getting our story out in agriculture. That’s what we’re trying to do specifically on the water management side with The Water Table is get our story out so that our city cousins understand what we’re doing is really good for the environment. It’s good to grow food for the world. We’re growing more because of it. It’s interesting that you start with that, that just in a short time, your followers have gone from 200,000 to, what are you at now?
Michelle Miller (02:56):
Like 220, some thousand. I think I should probably just not even put in a specific number because it just keeps growing, which is great. You see so many other ag influencers that are just crushing it out there. It’s nice to be among a group of people that we’re really trying to help propel the narrative forward in a positive way.
Jamie Duininck (03:21):
I think what’s happening as time evolves and with more and more information out there, like podcasts, is even the people that don’t agree with us, I think, want to be educated and they know that everything they’re hearing isn’t true. They want to hear from both sides and then be able to really decide for themselves. I really appreciate people like you that are out there every day and understand what happens in agriculture, but also have lived a different life, have lived in the city and understand those lifestyles too that can connect back to those people.
Michelle Miller (04:02):
It’s been a fun journey for sure.
Jamie Duininck (04:04):
I kind of want you to tell us a little bit about how you got to where you are, but one of the things I read about you is that before you were 30, you visited every continent and 67 countries. This doesn’t have anything to do with The Water Table, but I’m curious, and I think our listeners would be too, was that just something that was a goal of yours or did you have a role that you wanted to do that? Then next question would be what’s your favorite place and why that you were able to visit?
Michelle Miller (04:39):
Right after college, I moved to China. I just became really fascinated with culture. Going from Los Angeles to rural Chinese culture was about as opposite as you could be. From there, I was just like, “What else is out there with the world?” I just made a goal to visit all seven continents by the time I was 30. That was just something that was important to me that I achieved. I’ve never been a big stuff person. I don’t like material things, but I just like experiences. It was really fun.
I think Belize is my favorite country I’ve ever been to because I really like scuba diving. I’m actually at the library today, which is funny. My WiFi is down at home and you can see in the background is this one says, “Finding your roots,” which is very agriculture. This one has like a shark, which is really funny because I’m a big shark enthusiast. Just ironically being at the library today, this is a good portrayal of my two passions, which I love.
Jamie Duininck (05:38):
Michelle Miller (05:38):
I love the sea. I live in Florida. I love the beach. I love snorkeling and diving and then I love agriculture too. Belize was my favorite just from diving the Blue Hole and snorkeling with sharks. I’m a shark enthusiast.
Jamie Duininck (05:53):
Cool, good for you. Good for you. Well, tell us a little bit about your journey and how did you get to where you are today?
Michelle Miller (06:03):
I went to college. I started off in Wisconsin. I grew up in Wisconsin. Then I went to college in Los Angeles and got a fashion degree and worked for Gucci on Rodeo Drive. I was about, once again, about as far opposite as I could be now. But when you’re a big city girl, it’s like you fall victim to a lot of misinformation. I had watched Food Inc. and a lot of these animal rights activist videos. I was vegetarian for a while. I was an anti-GMO activist. I followed a gluten-free diet, all these different trends and buzzwords that was a part of my life as a city girl.
Then I ended up meeting a farmer in a bar from Iowa. I moved to Iowa for him. I started The Farm Babe back in 2014 because here I was falling in love with a farmer that was growing Monsanto GMOs, heaven forbid, right?
Jamie Duininck (06:52):
Michelle Miller (06:54):
Here I was thinking that GMOs were awful and Monsanto was the devil and he had feed lots and he was feeding corn to cattle and all these things that I thought were bad. Just him, and everybody in the rural Iowa farming communities, just looked at me like, “What are you talking about?” I realize that a lot of times farmers are disconnected from the disconnect, but since I know what it feels like to be on the opposite extremes of both perspectives, I just really work to bridge that gap and help people learn where their food comes from and do a lot of myth-busting and give farmers and science a bigger voice.
Jamie Duininck (07:29):
Did you feel like you were able to also motivate some of your friends in rural Iowa to understand that this is real what’s happening and that they were more engaged to tell their story because of knowing you and what your experience is?
Michelle Miller (07:52):
Yeah, 100%. I mean, I’ve had some people start off their own advocacy platforms and point blank said, “You’re the reason why I started.” That to me is one of the greatest compliments because a lot of people do want to hear our stories. A lot of farmers, they think that their voice can’t make a difference or they take what they do for granted because they’ve done it their whole lives. I’m like, “Yo, what you do is amazing. People want to know where their food comes from,” but we also have to be kind and compassionate about how we communicate that because online you see so many people that are aggressive or abrasive or they just treat people like idiots. It’s like over 90% of people are in the moveable middle. It’s just been an interesting journey to watch myself and so many other agricultural advocates, agvocates, really tell their stories. Together, we’re reaching hundreds of millions of people. It’s really incredible to see what we can do collaboratively.
Jamie Duininck (08:49):
Yeah, really cool. What’s been in this journey and really becoming passionate for what you’re doing? I mean, that’s obvious that you’re passionate for telling the story of agriculture. Give us an example or two of something that really was fulfilling that you were able to connect to and be involved with on this journey.
Michelle Miller (09:16):
There’s so many, but I think the Burger King story is probably one of the biggest claims-to-fame, I guess. I mean, do you want me to go ahead and talk about Burger King?
Jamie Duininck (09:25):
Yeah, we talked about in the bio, but tell our listeners a little bit about what that was all about.
Michelle Miller (09:33):
Burger King released this horrible ad back in July of 2020 that was talking about how cattle are destroying the planet. It was cow farts and methane is destroying everything. The ad was horrible. It was kids wearing gas masks and the polar ice caps were melting because of cow farts. I mean, it was just ridiculous. The #BoycottBurgerKing was trending all across Twitter, social media. People were pushing back telling Burger King this is greenwashing. This is nonsense because Burger King’s solution was, “We are going to feed lemongrass to cattle, which could reduce methane emissions by up to a third.” Basically they’re like, “We’re going to save the planet by feeding lemongrass to cattle.” Sounds like a good idea in theory. But then you’re like, “Where do you source lemongrass and how much is that going to cost? What does the research actually say?”
There was one study that proved, yes, if you feed lemongrass to cattle, you could reduce methane emissions by up to a third. However, other studies, there was one at UC Davis and in Europe, they were not coming up with the same conclusions. The results were inconclusive and not yet published. Academia got mad at Burger King too because they said, “Well, actually this is not what we’re claiming. It’s pretty dodgy of you to release this when our research is not even published.” They got all this backlash for that.
I sent a tweet out to their global chief marketing officer just explaining why we found the ad so offensive. I said, “Look, reducing methane, focusing on sustainability, these are all things that farmers and ranchers care about.” Burger King actually reached out to me. I had a call with them and I invited them out to my farm. I was living in on the farm in Iowa at the time. We were cattle farmers, sheep, corn, soybeans, oats, hay, all that stuff. I said, “Come on out,” and they did.
Burger King, the global chief marketing officer, Fernando, came out with a camera crew. They retracted the original ad and put out a new ad that focused on sustainability and their partnership with farmers. Rather than throwing us under the bus and making us look like a bunch of environmentally-destructive jerks, they actually changed their whole marketing narrative. I took them to a farm that had methane digesters. We went to my farm. I involved Iowa State, took them to some feed lots and really just submerged them in all of the knowledge that they needed to have to really focus on what things farmers are doing to protect the environment.
That was probably my biggest claim-to-fame story that people like to hear is. That’s what I preach on as a keynote speaker is helping people realize that our voices in agriculture are so powerful. We have to tell our story so that the Burger Kings of the world aren’t putting out these horrible ads, that they understand us. I learned that Fernando had never even really been to a farm before. How are you the chief marketing officer, but you don’t really know how beef is raised. That’s a problem. That’s been just awesome to have them come to the table and change their tune, literally.
Jamie Duininck (12:46):
Yeah, for sure, for sure. Great story. Great story. That probably leads a little bit into what we do. I know you’re not extremely well-versed on managing the water with tile drainage on the farm, but you have been to a lot of farms and you know a lot of farmers and farm advocates that use our water management products from our company or from others. I even saw recently that I think you visited The Millennial Farmer. He does tons of tile drainage and water management on his farm. You’re aware of what it is.
I guess the question that I’d have is we, in our segment of agricultural industry, deal with the same things where we have a lot of people that don’t understand what we do. They have a perception of what we do that comes from lots of different places, but a lot of times they have a negative perception. That’s, again, why we’re here at The Water Table is to tell our story to educate people and to help the people that are on our side be able to tell the story better and be able to encourage them and give them the confidence to go out and tell their story.
But, how would you encourage people that are in the water management industry to get involved or what would be your advice to be able to continue to tell a positive story about what we do because we do a lot of great things?
Michelle Miller (14:19):
That’s a great question. One thing that I’m glad you asked, because I, myself, have not really dived into this avenue of agriculture as much as I’d like to. I know that we had tileage and drainage on the farm in Iowa when I lived there and I was farming. I saw it. I saw it being constructed and implemented and all that. I was like, “This is really neat,” but it’s really hard to make that sexy. I don’t even know because the water, what you guys do is something that I don’t hear much about. I don’t hear much pushback on it. I don’t dive into it much. I think it’s really hard to tell this story because you don’t see it, right?
Jamie Duininck (14:19):
Michelle Miller (15:06):
It’s not like watching plants grow or watching raising livestock because it’s something you can visually see. What you guys do is so behind the scenes that I think just the best way you guys can tell your story is personally. If you are doing a selfie video, if you’re working on some project or you’re doing something and you have a physical visual to show somebody, or if you have a study that’s showing, “Hey, because of this technology, we’ve reduced whatever by this much,” and you have that study to share, or you can do a side by side picture of before and after wall air quality, I think anything visual is going to be a lot easier for you guys to share because your industry is so non-visual. You know what I mean?
What is it exactly that you guys have done or are doing in your industry? Tell me a couple of success stories. Is that okay? It’s your show, but-
Jamie Duininck (16:03):
Yeah, some of the things that we get criticized for is, and not necessarily that we’re the culprit, but we are part of the issue and we can be part of the solution, is the whole hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the nitrates are running-
Michelle Miller (16:21):
That’s such a hot topic.
Jamie Duininck (16:25):
We have a lot of great studies coming out here at The Water Table. We have interviewed Matt Helmers from Iowa State University, a professor there. They’re doing a lot of great things at Iowa State building, constructing engineered denitrification wetlands. The amount of nitrate that’s coming that they’re able to take out of that system by building these wetlands is really remarkable. We’re doing things with the Agricultural Drainage Management Coalition, which we’ve interviewed here a lot too, Charlie Schafer, and others in regards to things like saturated buffers and how we can run the tile water through a saturated buffer and reduce the nitrates that way and control drainage. There is a lot of things going on, but you’re 100% right about what we do is underground. Once it’s installed, literally, if somebody drives by a project, it can be a very significant project, and if they drive by there one day too late, they don’t even know that there was a project done-
Michelle Miller (16:25):
I know. That’s-
Jamie Duininck (17:35):
… on that field because it’s done.
Michelle Miller (17:37):
That’s what’s so crazy about it.
Jamie Duininck (17:42):
What we really need to tell the story, it’s still hard because you can’t see it, but once a project is done, that pipe in the ground is managing the water for hundreds of years.
Michelle Miller (17:55):
Jamie Duininck (17:57):
We know that our plastic pipe can have a 100-year service life. We’re finding pipe in the field that’s very old that we know has been in fields in Europe and different places for much longer than 100 years. What happens then is the farmer, or the person that paid for that drainage system, is reaping the benefits of that for generations. It’s not like you’re buying a car in which it’s rusted out and gone in 10 years. This is something that you’re investing in your family farm, but it’s growing higher yields, which is feeding the world, and which is making that land more valuable, which is you’re paying higher taxes, which is building schools and hospitals and those kind of things in your local community. It’s an awesome investment that grows higher yields.
If we do some of these new practices, like saturated buffers and denitrification wetlands, we can reduce some of the pollutants that our product is a conduit to bring to the rivers and streams. We can reduce that. Also, we didn’t even talk about things like erosion reduction because you’re managing the water on your farm. Here in Minnesota last week, we had 10 inches of rain. I own a small farm. I’m part of a company that makes the product and had a bunch of erosion, but guess what? We’re going to fix it with drainage pipe and with managing the water on the farm. So that that top soil, which you definitely know that from what you do, that top soil is very important to keep on the farm. We’re not losing that into the rivers and streams.
There’s a lot of things we can tell, but I really appreciate you motivating me and our customers around, hey, when you see something, because that is going to be buried an hour from now, take a selfie feed, do a video.
Michelle Miller (19:56):
Take some pictures and videos, explain what it is, what you’re doing and why and how. I think another way you guys could tell the story better is also right now regenerative is the new buzzword. We went from natural to organic, to regenerative, oh, what’s the next buzzword going to be? But, no-till farming … and I think it’s funny, actually, Millennial Farmer is one of these people that come to my mind, I know you mentioned him earlier, about how I used to watch videos of him tilling. I’m a huge proponent of no-till. I used to cringe when I see these guys with, and I understand the different farmers do a different in different regions, so I’m not knocking them, but we were no-till for over 20 years when I was on the farm in Iowa, cover crops, no-till, soil testing, winning awards for farmers of the year for soil and water conservation something.
I was farming with my boyfriend at the time. His brother was a soil scientist for the NRCS. We were always involved in the latest and greatest studies and what that looks like, but tileage, drainage, what you guys do is not always a key part of that conversation, especially to the end consumer. But you have to be proactive instead of reactive because right now, there’s not a huge doom and gloom story. It’s not like the anti-GMO movement or factory farming or pesticides or these hot topics. But, regenerative is a buzzword and it’s consumer-driven and more corporations are jumping on it. But if you can be like, “Hey, we’re part of that too,” and you’re proactive, that would be really awesome. Now is the time for you guys to really jump on this-
Jamie Duininck (21:38):
Michelle Miller (21:38):
… as to why you make farmers more regenerative or just environmentally sound overall. What are we doing to protect the dead zone? God, that’s such a big issue that I hear about all the freaking time. I try to learn about it. I was actually down in the Gulf of Mexico, I was working with some farms and some researchers down in the New Orleans area. I actually met this woman who worked at the museum. It was like the aquarium museum that’s got all these water quality exhibits there in the Gulf of Mexico. I said, “What’s the real story with the dead zone in the Gulf?” She made it sound like things have improved 100 times tenfold.
I believe her because she’s there with the research working at the museum telling the story, but at the same time, I’m like, “Okay, but tell me more about this.” I need to really dive in, pun intended, with the experts here. Y’all’s voices that are making the improvements, you need to be a 100 times louder. We need to get celebrities. We need to get influencers, people out there to really help change that narrative. Because right now, even myself, somebody that’s big into the space, I don’t know much about it, but I want to. Here’s your opportunity for the people listening in your industry to speak up because it’s cool. If you don’t speak up, somebody else is going to keep telling that doom and gloom story that’s not true. You know?
Jamie Duininck (23:06):
Right. Yep, absolutely. I want to just go back to the no-till conversation a little bit around that’s also not only different by just the way people, the practices they use and what they know from history, but it also is different by geography from the standpoint of up here in the upper Midwest, the spring isn’t long enough to dry out that soil if it’s not black. A lot of times, that’s why historically we’ve tiled everything, got it black, the sun then penetrates that soil, it dries it out and you can get in the field much quicker.
You aren’t going to get in the field if you have no-till and you have a wet, cool spring like we’ve had in Minnesota. We’re here at the end of May talking on this and we’re still planting corn up here and some places are just getting in. But if you have that that land managed with proper water management products, you’re going to be able to get in, you’re going to be able to plant that crop in that field much quicker because it’s going to dry out because of that pipe in that field where you didn’t have it before. There is things-
Michelle Miller (23:06):
Let you go.
Jamie Duininck (24:13):
… thought where we have to … every problem is usually not … I shouldn’t say every problem. Most problems, there isn’t just one solution. There has to be more than one solution to make [inaudible 00:24:24].
Michelle Miller (24:23):
Well, see, that’s great. Another reason why I love advocating for agriculture is because you learn something new every day. People do tend to think, “Oh, it’s just this one-size-fits-all solution and I can do it this way. Everybody should do it this way.” It’s never the case.
Jamie Duininck (24:37):
Right, right, for sure. Well, Michelle, thank you for joining us today. You made it work from the library and you’re going to have a lot of noise there with kids coming in. We’re not going to take too much of your time, but I appreciate you joining The Water Table and maybe we can do this again sometime as things go on. I really appreciate it.
Michelle Miller (24:58):
Sounds great. Thank you so much. I don’t get asked to go on a lot of water-type podcasts. This is a nice treat where-
Jamie Duininck (25:05):
We would love to have you up to Minnesota sometime and show you more of what we do.
Michelle Miller (25:09):
Yeah, that would be really cool. Just to learn more about it is one part of ag that I really want to know more about. Thank you for the invite and the opportunity to let me experience and learn a little bit more about your sector of ag.
Jamie Duininck (25:24):
Yeah, thanks. Before we go, Farmbabe.com, where else can people find you?
Michelle Miller (25:32):
Jamie Duininck (25:33):
TheFarmBabe.com, and then-
Michelle Miller (25:33):
Jamie Duininck (25:34):
I know you mentioned it, keynote speakers, keynote speeches, you do that. If somebody wants to hire you or look more into this, they can find this all on your website, correct?
Michelle Miller (25:48):
Yep, I am a social media influencer. I’m a writer and columnist for about four different ag publications now. Between writing and seeking and social media and traveling, I’m keeping busy, but I love what I do and it’s great to connect with you all.
Jamie Duininck (26:02):
Thank you very much.
Michelle Miller (26:03):
Jamie Duininck (26:03):
Michelle Miller (26:03):
Jamie Duininck (26:08):
Thanks for joining us today on The Water Table. You can find us at WaterTable.Ag. You can find us on Facebook. You can find us on Twitter. You can also find the podcast on any of your favorite podcast platforms.