By Matt Reese
David Brandt did not even know what a meme was until he found out he was one.
“I didn’t know anything about it until I went to the bank, probably a year and a half ago or so, and one of the tellers says, ‘You’re a meme.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’” Brandt said. “She showed it to me on her phone and she says, ‘What do you think?’ and I said, ‘Well I guess somebody took my picture. I should have got it registered or something. Maybe I could have made some money off of it.’”
For those not familiar, a meme is a cultural piece of media that is shared online, often with the intention of invoking certain emotions, usually being humorous. For those who use them, memes are immediately recognizable ways to convey different spins on a common theme or thought.
A meme featuring a photo of Brandt taken at a Natural Resources Conservation Service event on his farm in 2012 with the phrase “It ain’t much but it’s honest work” has become a global symbol of traditional values and work ethic.
“NRCS was at the farm. The chief was here and we kicked off the soil health movement on this farm,” Brandt said. “They took that picture of me and somebody picked it up somewhere. I was at a no-till conference a year ago, I think it was in St. Louis if I remember right. Anyhow, I was walking down the street and this couple came out of this restaurant and she says, ‘You’re the meme! Will you let me take a picture of you?’ I just had to laugh because it was so funny that somebody I didn’t even know had seen it and recognized me.”
USDA posted the now internationally famous photo of Brandt in a 2014 blog commemorating the second anniversary the NRCS “Unlocking the secrets of the soil” campaign. In 2018, an online Reddit user posted the meme with the caption “When your teacher asks you why you have submitted only one of 20 paper homework.” It took off from there.
In agricultural circles, Brandt is known as a global leader in no-till, cover crops, soil health, nutrient dense crops, and direct marketing. Agriculturalists from around the world visit his Fairfield County farm each year to see his soils first-hand and learn from his many years of experience. He also travels the world speaking about his farm.
Brandt is a Vietnam vet who returned home to farm in the late 1960s, but soon after his return, Brandt’s father died in a farming accident. He and his wife, Kendra (who passed away in 2020), were forced to sell the farm and start over with very little equipment. No-till was a way to reduce costs. Since then, Brandt’s use of no-till and cover crops has increased soil organic matter and decreased input costs dramatically. He now farms, and operates Walnut Creek Seeds, with his son, daughter-in-law and grandson.
Being an internationally recognized meme has familiarized an entirely new group of people around the world with Brandt’s image, which has shown up in surprising places.
“I think it’s kind of fun you know. There are face masks with my picture on it, there’s hats, there are even skirts with my picture on the front of them,” Brandt said. “I think it was about 4 or 5 months ago we got a picture of a billboard in Texas with my picture on it with that saying. One of our landlords is a computer technology person. He was over in Sweden doing some electronic work for his computer company and his boss asked if he knew this guy. He says yeah, this guy farms for me, so he got asked that clear over there.”
A quick online search will turn up paintings, t-shirts, stickers, and countless other items featuring the iconic image. While Brandt really does embody the phrase “It ain’t much but it’s honest work” in both the real world and in the world of memes, he does have reservations about being so widely associated with the word “ain’t” knowing his former English teacher would not be impressed.
“I didn’t always listen very well in high school. I remember we had this English teacher. She came from a girl’s academy out in California when her husband came to Rickenbacker Airport and, of course, she was going to teach all the farm boys here how to be polite,” Brandt said. “Now she’s probably turning over in her grave.”