Grant and Spencer Hilbert (Photo: Iowa Soybean Association / Joclyn Bushman)
Brothers start farm after virtual farming fame
January 11, 2024 | Joseph Hopper
Grant Hilbert can’t stop thinking about farming. Younger brother Spencer Hilbert enjoys farm work. They’re a natural fit for life on the farm in Iowa, but their careers began working with tractors made of virtual polygons displayed on computer screens. Grant and Spencer are both successful YouTubers, creating video content viewed by more than 2 million people across the world.
Grant was the first to start a YouTube channel, The Squad, in 2014 while he was a high school student at Ankeny Centennial. Spencer would soon follow, with Spencer TV in 2017. Both channels have cultivated an audience who eagerly follow along with their adventures playing farming video games.
“A buddy and I wanted to start a YouTube channel. He was like, ‘We should start a gaming channel,’” Grant says. “I had played games like Call of Duty but I wasn’t into games that much. I ended up saying, ‘Okay, let’s take a business approach and try really hard at YouTube and making this gaming stuff successful.’”
After some trial and error, Grant found his audience after making his first few videos playing the video game Farming Simulator on YouTube. When a $600 check from YouTube arrived in the mailbox, the youngest brother realized it could be a business opportunity.
“Farming Simulator” features a virtual world which is highly customizable, featuring all sorts of environments, buildings, equipment and machinery. The end result is a blank canvas for a farmer’s wildest dreams to take place in-game. Both brothers agree: the farm-gaming audience always wants to see something new.
“The hardest part is just thinking of ideas for the videos,” Grant says. “If I go out and just plant corn and harvest corn, it’s going to be super boring. You have to be creative.”
With nearly 4,000 videos between Grant’s The Squad and Spencer’s Spencer TV YouTube channels, scenarios these virtual farmers face go beyond planting and harvesting. Videos range from restoring a classic pick-up truck found inside a barn to starting a secondary business like a lawn mowing service, and from becoming the world’s best backwards-driving grain cart driver to racing stock cars with farmer friends on a dirt track.
The views and subscribers to the brothers’ channels continue to grow. It took The Squad two years to reach 15,000 subscribers, but after taking his YouTube work more seriously after entering Iowa State University, Grant grew his YouTube channel to 1 million subscribers by the time he graduated. Two years younger, Spencer wasn’t far behind with his own channel. Spencer says it was common to get a shocked reaction when talking about their YouTube careers, initially being more known for athletics in school than gaming.
“After class I’d come home, maybe go to the gym and then YouTube all night,” Grant says. “I did that for four years straight and it started taking off.”
“We were always interested in investing and finances and different ways to make incomes,” Spencer says. “Once you go down those rabbit holes, then it’s just appealing to have little side hustles and keep it going.”
The two brothers grew up in Ankeny, one generation removed from their grandparents’ farm near Algona. After building up their successful channels, the next move was obvious to Grant: start their own farm. Purchasing some land and equipment, the brothers have relied on each other even more. With some help and support from their parents, family, friends and some neighbors, the childhood dream came true.
“My dream has always been consistent: to be a full-time row crop farmer,” Grant says. “If I’m spending a majority of my day farming, that is a dream; no matter how much you’re making or how little.”
He added, “Jumping into farming, there’s a lot you just have to experience. How do I set a planter? How do I set a combine? You just have to be in the environment.”
2023 marked the first year Spencer raised a crop in his own name, outside of a simulation.
“I don’t think I would have done it if it wasn’t for Grant starting this,” Spencer says.
The brothers’ YouTube footprint has grown to include them each having their own personal YouTube channels under their own names, highlighting activities on the farm. Their passion for making videos is as strong as ever and so is the interest of online audiences wanting to watch farming content.
“My mentality has always been when something exciting and good happens in life, go do something else; go create a harder challenge to offset it mentally,” Grant says. “Somehow that keeps turning out somewhat decent.”
While each have their own approaches, Grant says he’s learned from his brother, too.
“We both have channels documenting our real-life journey, and Spencer’s videos are better than mine,” Grant says. “He’ll take three months to film and then put it all into one video and get half a million views. He’s figured it out way better than I have.”
In November 2023, the brothers were eagerly awaiting the final stages of the next big project: the launch of Grant’s mobile video game, American Farming. The older Hilbert built a game development studio, SquadBuilt Inc., to create his dream farming video game armed with the experience of being a farming-gaming content creator. It’s a full circle moment for the brothers.
“We’ve been making the videos for six or seven years and now we’ll be playing a game that Grant made,” Spencer says. “Our next job will be promoting this launch.”
“That’s been a big weight on my shoulders,” says Grant. “Once American Farming gets launched and things get smooth, I’ll relax more and focus on farming.”