UNI alum's path from corn farmer to YouTube star

UNI alum's path from corn farmer to YouTube star

It’s a classic Iowa story — UNI graduate Cole was raised in small-town central Iowa, where he watched his dad and grandfather work his family’s farm together. At age five, he was sitting on his father’s lap while he drove tractors across the corn fields. Within three years, he started driving the tractors himself. It was a given that he’d grow up to take over the farm’s operations someday.

“As soon as I was tall enough to get my head to poke over, I was behind the wheel,” said Cole, who asked that his last name not be published to help protect his family’s privacy. “I’m 22 and I’ve been doing a lot of this stuff for 15 years.”

It was while he was a UNI finance student that Cole was first inspired to spin this story of a family farming legacy into a yarn for the internet age, launching his very own YouTube channel. It’s been an unexpected smash — his “Cole the Cornstar” channel has passed the 200,000 suscribers mark in just a year-and-a-half. 

Through videos like “Irresponsible Farm Boy Gets Stuck” “I Installed Wifi in My Combine” and “Dad Almost Caught on Fire!” Cole documents his family’s life on the farm through a comedic lens. A recent video titled, “How To Get Kicked Off A Farm” opens with a funky soundtrack and a slow-motion closeup of his brother, Cooper, smiling while his mullet is blown back with an air hose.

But the videos also give outsiders a real glimpse of life on the farm —  from harvesting crops, to maintaining decades-old machinery, to applying for operating loans at the bank. It was help with the latter that led Cole to major in finance when he came to UNI in 2017.

“I knew I wanted something business-related. I’m a big numbers guy,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff you just kind of naturally learn on the farm, such as management practices and that kind of thing, so I figured I could supplement some of my own education there, but finance stuff is something that can be pretty technical, so I wanted to expand my horizons.”

That same year, Cole had to step up and manage the farm’s finances. His grandfather had recently passed the responsibility on to him, due to his own ailing health. One of his finance professors, Ronnie Chen, was there to help him make sense of the books. 

"I was very interested in farming and what their family had been doing on the farm,” said Chen, who wonders if those talks help inspire Cole to pursue his YouTube dreams. Either way, Chen said he’s a big fan of the videos — which he called “informative and hilarious.”

Obsession, passion and purpose

Cole launched the channel — in the midst of juggling his UNI classes and farmwork — with a clear vision. He wanted to share his passion for farming with as many people as possible, to help people understand and appreciate the agricultural industry.

“I want to bridge the gap between consumers and farmers, because there’s a lot of misunderstanding of what actually goes on,” he said. “Years ago, everybody had a connection to a farm. I think over time, people have lost that connection. But I think it’s still in the back of people’s minds, like, ‘Hey, this food came from somewhere,’ and they just genuinely care about it. When we put it in the spotlight, they can learn and actually put a face to what’s going on behind the scenes and understand where these products that they consume everyday come from.”

At UNI, Cole made his own path. He preferred farmwork over going out on the weekends, and would travel back home to help out on the farm as much as he could. When he couldn’t go home, he’d sit alone in his dorm and watch YouTube videos and read articles about creating internet content. That’s when he decided to try his hand at making his own YouTube videos.

“I kind of became obsessed with figuring out how to get better at it,” Cole said. “I’d do a lot of research on search engine optimization and how to improve my speaking style, how to tell better stories.” 

With his growing subscriber count — since passing 200,000, he continues to gain thousands of subscribers each day — it’s clear his obsession has paid off. Reaching this level of success is a major accomplishment for anyone, but it’s even more of a feat to reach this milestone in such a short time, and especially for a farmer from small-town Iowa.

“It feels really, really good and it’s a massive honor,” he said. “Just the fact that people are willing to take time out of their day and sit down and watch what I do. It’s really humbling to me.”

UNI helped him sharpen some skills that helped his videos spread. A course in American Sign Language (ASL) with Katie O’Brien, an instructor in UNI’s department of communication sciences & disorders, inspired him to try to make his videos more accessible to people with hearing difficulties.

“As an ASL instructor, I try to always stay aware of my hearing privilege, but I know that's not the norm for most people. When Cole told me about his YouTube channel, I told him I couldn't share them on my social media because they lacked captions,” said O’Brien. “Cole was honest and said he wasn't sure how to do captions on his videos, so we talked about how to make that happen. He now uses YouTube's automatic captioning, which is not always correct but offers a feature that allows for corrections. Providing access to deaf and hard of hearing people through captioning has helped Cole to make his channel more inclusive, and I'm really proud that he considers the community I taught him about when making his videos.”

Beyond making content that’s accessible to anyone, Cole’s channel is also a way to carry on the legacy his grandfather left and share it with a wider audience. Doing this would turn out to help his family cope as well. After Cole’s grandfather passed away in 2018, his father took it especially hard. But appearing on Cole’s YouTube channel and seeing the impact he was having helped him reconnect with his passion.

“My dad was pretty lost for awhile there and he had no interest in the farm. Dad just kind of associated that with his dad. His best friend was gone and he didn’t know how to farm without him,” said Cole. “So that’s kind of where the YouTube channel came in as a blessing in disguise. When the channel started taking off, it gave dad a purpose again.”

Keeping it real

The channel gave Cole’s father a purpose — and a following. Part of the appeal of the channel is Cole’s interactions with his family. His dad and his younger brother, Cooper, are both regularly featured on the channel, and his father has gained fans of his own. “Daddy Cornstar,” as he’s referred to on the channel, is a star in his own right, with more than 8,000 followers on Instagram, despite not having a single post on his main feed.

Not that he needs to post anything for fans to get a glimpse into his life. There’s plenty of footage available on Cole’s YouTube channel — of Cole’s dad working on the farm, answering fan questions and cracking jokes to the camera — and according to Cole, part of what viewers love about his channel is the raw look it gives at farm life — and family.

“I like to think we’re real. I’m not out to try to portray us as someone we’re not. People can sniff out inauthenticity. I’d say people enjoy the integrity of what goes on,” he said. “I show the good and the bad. I think people really respect that about us. We say it how it is.”

According to UNI professor of sociology Marybeth Stalp, it’s this unique take on farm life that has helped Cole find success online.

“YouTube is an open market of idea sharing, allowing for new talent to be discovered, and not just in the music industry,” said Stalp. “‘Cole the Cornstar’ is a refreshing voice in this virtual space as a farming insider. As he presents the everyday in farming to the world, Cole demonstrates that a career in farming is interesting, complicated, intricate, important and cool.”

The YouTube channel has also impacted his farm. Since gaining popularity, Cole has been able to monetize his videos, and has secured a raft of sponsorships. This has provided extra income for the farm, allowing Cole to make upgrades to the farm’s technology that may have never happened otherwise. It’s made the work that went into launching the channel feel worth it — and taught him some life lessons.

“I was putting in 16 hour days on the farm, and then I would come home, work on YouTube stuff for another four or five hours every single night. I put in almost 1,000 hours worth of work and I didn’t get paid a single dime for it before I started seeing any success at all,” he said. “Once I started actually succeeding with it, I realized everyone on YouTube or any kind of celebrity, they’re a normal person just like any of us. They just took their craft and they honed it to become very good at what they do. You just gotta be patient and you gotta be willing to work hard.”