Farming in the virtual and real worlds

Grant Hilbert, '20 ag business and economics
Grant Hilbert created a YouTube channel as a sophomore in high school, playing Farming Simulator with friends. After graduating from Iowa State University, the channel had generated him enough money to buy a real farm in Poweshiek and Mahaska County, Iowa.

By Madelyn Ostendorf

When Grant Hilbert was a sophomore in high school, he started a YouTube channel called The Squad, partially for fun and partially to get a little extra money.

The channel featured Hilbert (’20 agricultural business, economics) playing various computer games alongside friends. Business had always been interesting to him, and learning what content strategies worked the best for these videos was fun.

Eventually, he settled on Farming Simulator, a game where players grow crops, tend to livestock and get a taste of what farming is all about.

As a child growing up in central Iowa, Hilbert had always been interested in agriculture. He’d often help his grandpa and uncles with farm chores on spring break, learning everything he could about farming.

“I always had farming in my blood, but I grew up in a city,” Hilbert said. “So I said, ‘I’ll make this work someday.’ As a kid, my goal was to work with a job until I was 50 or 60 years old, and then I'd be able to start a farm.”

During his college years at Iowa State University, Hilbert made money from his YouTube channel, which was at 30,000 subscribers at the start of his freshman year, and posted daily videos while working toward his agricultural business and economics degrees.

“I reach people from all over the United States,” Hilbert said. “About 70% of my audience is from the United States, and the other 30% tunes in from other countries. It’s been amazing seeing how my reach has grown through the years.”

Just as Hilbert graduated in 2020, his channel passed an important milestone: 1 million subscribers. With the money he had made and his education, Hilbert decided in late 2020 to purchase 250 acres of farmland in Iowa's Poweshiek and Mahaska counties, formally bringing his farming from the digital world to the real world and starting his childhood dream 40 years early.

Hilbert said one of the most valuable classes at Iowa State was Econ 364: Rural Property Appraisal. It taught him a lot about the models and software available to value farmland when buying a farm at auction or a listing.

In 2020, Hilbert also started another YouTube Channel called Grant Hilbert, where he documents the real-life farming journey. He shares all the ups and downs of getting started farming from scratch.

Hilbert said no one taught him how to farm, but he learned by trial and error, talking with his neighbors who also farmed, and getting suggestions from channel viewers. 

“My neighbors helped me out a ton,” Hilbert said. “I'll call one of them and ask, ‘Am I doing this right? Is my population right?’ Also, watching a bunch of online videos and then looking at forums is how I learned. And I'm still not an expert by any means. There’s always more to learn.”

Though he has a real farm now, Hilbert has not stopped posting to The Squad's YouTube channel, which currently sits at 1.4 million subscribers and 500 million views. He still posts Farming Simulator videos but has reduced his posting frequency to three times per week. With so much to juggle in the virtual and real farming worlds, he breaks his week down into spending 50% of his weekend on himself, 50% of his weekend on farming, 40% of his weekdays on producing content, and the rest of the time on a third endeavor - producing a mobile farming game with his company, SquadBuilt Inc.

Since 2020, Hilbert has been working on the mobile game, American Farming, which focuses on Midwestern farming styles and American equipment. Hilbert heads a team of nine software developers, technical artists and world builders who have been hard at work perfecting the game.

“A lot of people have been really excited about it,” Hilbert said. “At last year’s Farm Progress Show in Boone, we had a demo booth where people got to play the game. It was one of those events where I could connect the faces of the viewers of my channel and the people that are going to be playing this game.”