Farmer’s son Joe Johnson has turned a pastime into a new digital forum aimed at showcasing rural characters. Danusia Osiowy finds out more.
Joe Johnson has spent a lot of time on the road, with Murray Mints and podcasts as his must-have companions.
And one such drive on the A518 in Staffordshire led to an epiphany which became the catalyst for his return to the countryside.
Hailing from a 600-acre arable farm in Leicestershire, the enterprise has seen cattle, pigs, poultry come and go, while wheat, oats, barley and oilseed rape remain at the core.
Having moved to London in 2008 with a degree in philosophy and communications from Leeds University, he worked in a variety of roles, from food and drink advertising, to business development consultancy.
“I was driving around the country a lot,” explains Joe, who is engaged to Laura and father to nine-month old Victor.
“Getting anywhere meaningful seemed to take three hours – and those journeys really lend themselves to listening to podcasts.”
His initial engagement with the digital medium was the American podcast Serial, before he began discovering more and more.
“The more I listened, the more I thought ‘I could do this!’” he added. “I also was, and remain, fascinated by farm diversification.
“The podcast was initially going to focus on that, but I decided to broaden it out to rural life as there are so many interesting stories to tell beyond just farm businesses.”
Joe began by investing in recording equipment and soundproofing material for his studio – which is now located in his garden shed – and approaching people to interview.
“I wanted to just get started with a view to developing it on the hoof, which is still happening all the time,” he says.
With an endless choice of farmers, characters and industry professionals, how does he decide who he is going to feature?
“It’s not a farming podcast, so I have given myself license to focus on good content with a rural angle. Sometimes that involves farmers, sometimes it doesn’t,” he adds.
“Right at the start I made a list of dream guests and interesting subjects. The first name on the list was William Chase, a farming hero of mine.”
Mr Chase agreed and featured in the first episode which was recorded in September 2017 and released in January this year.
“He is someone I’ve admired for many years and we spoke for a long time about subjects I find fascinating,” Joe says. “He was totally open about his failures and successes, as well as mental health, competitors and farming. He is a whirlwind of energy and unpredictability. He’s probably quite hard to work for, but great to interview.
“The second interview was with Adam, who was a night lamber. This was a totally different experience and a totally different episode.
“Adam is gay and I believed he has a story to tell. I felt the plight of young gay men in rural Britain was more nuanced and deserving of structure.
“So I set the scene with some direct and occasionally disturbing quotes from an internet forum for farmers, and then attempted to tell the story about attitudes in the countryside, almost treating Adam as a special guest rather than interviewee.
“In the end, it became about him because his character shone through and his own story is so
So far Joe has always interviewed face-to-face and he is determined to keep it that way.
“To me, you can tell the difference between a Skype interview and a face-to-face,” he says.
“Skype interviews are often reduced to a Q&A, whereas in person there is the opportunity for more of an extensive discussion. That might not be to everyone’s taste but it’s certainly my preference. It adds texture and realness to the podcast.”
As a listener, I enjoy them during car journeys or dog walks. I enjoy the control, the variety available, the fact that I can get on with other things while listening.
I have a few favourite podcasts and I have been with them for a few years now. The hosts feel very familiar and you feel you are part of their world, and they become part of yours.
As a producer, I’m really proud of creating something from scratch.
In the 1950s, my grandfather started a co-operative called East Midlands Farmers. It was successful for a time and a very forward thinking idea.
In the end, farmer members began to negotiate better deals outside the co-op and it fell apart, but the fact I can read and hear about his innovative work almost 70 years later is important.
In the digital age, people don’t realise our grandkids will be able to read about every single thing we have ever done.
I wanted to create something new. It might fail, like East Midlands Farmers did, but I know its credible and the content is good, so in years to come when my grandkids download an episode, they hopefully might think it’s cool.
Joe often spends Saturday mornings editing at the breakfast table, plus there is time taken to travel to interview people, research their background and attempt to grow the audience through marketing.
He aims to attract two types of audience. “The first are tractor drivers with lots of time to listen and the second are city commuters looking for a bit of audio escapism while on the Tube,” he says.
“I take a pretty neutral line about most things, including farming. It’s not a puppet for NFU soundbites, and I think a lot of farmers out there are interested in alternative ways of looking at the industry and the culture around it.”
One of the main challenges is time management and he is still learning to maximise efficiency as he develops the recordings.
“In making the podcast, it’s the cost that is the main consideration. I could be doing paid work, but choose not to for a small portion of the week to make the podcast,” he adds. “That’s a tough balance to get right, especially with young mouths to feed.”
When he isn’t perfecting the next recording, Joe, who has fully relocated back to Leicestershire, works with G2 Innovation as a business development consultant, partly working with agricultural engineers in new product development.
Although a young business, Joe is confident the digital platform will only become stronger in the future.
“Simply, there will be more and more and more podcasts,” he says. “As with any democratised medium of today, like film-making and music, the barriers to starting up and being heard by people are so low that anyone can have a crack.
“The downside is there is a lot of noise, a lot of rubbish for listeners to sift through and it’s very hard to separate yourself from that noise.
“The big trend supporting podcasts on a macro level is that everyone is so desperately time poor these days. Therefore, being able to listen to something interesting while simultaneously achieving another task is gold dust.”
Interestingly, he isn’t swamping social media in his quest for followers, instead preferring to spend his time producing good, engaging content in the hope word of mouth will then carry it forward.
“I can see the audience numbers growing, steadily,” he adds. “But much more important than that is when a cynical mate who wouldn’t purposely make me feel good texts to say they loved a certain episode and to keep doing what I’m doing. That means a hell of a lot when embarking on a creative venture, because you occasionally wonder whether you’re making a fool of yourself.”
Having left city life behind, Joe hopes he might return to farming.
“I had been in London for almost 10 years,” says Joe. “But I always knew I would end up back in the Leicestershire countryside. It’s hard to say why, but of course being close to family is really important now that I have a young child.
“The farm is in the blood and my fiancée and I are very privileged to have a base to come back to. I think a lot of people don’t feel a sense of place and belonging that those from a farming background feel.”