LANCASTER, Ohio (WCMH) — An Ohio farmer whose photo became a widely used meme has died, but not without leaving behind a legacy in the agricultural world alongside his internet fame.
On Thursday, 76-year-old Dave Brandt was driving home to his Fairfield County farm after picking up red corn near Champaign, Illinois, when his truck crashed. Emergency crews took him to the Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana. Randall Reeder, a friend and colleague, confirmed to Nexstar’s WCMH-TV that Brandt died overnight Saturday.
“I got the call about 7 a.m. Sunday morning,” Reeder recalled.
Called “the godfather of soil health” by Reeder, Brandt also became a staple in internet culture thanks to a 2014 U.S. Department of Agriculture article about his farming techniques. A Redditor picked up the attached photo of Brandt four years later and added the text, “It ain’t much, but it’s honest work,” according to Know Your Meme. The picture birthed a new meme format that rapidly spread across Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms.
Reeder didn’t know if Brandt ever actually said the phrase, but noted that honest work “does fit him.”
“It got spread around the world pretty quick,” Reeder said. “He was pleased with it, he had fun with it, and didn’t object to it at all. It’s a good saying!”
However, there was more to the farmer than his image on the internet. Brandt, a Vietnam War veteran who earned three Purple Hearts, picked up farming in the 1970s. More specifically, Brandt was an avid proponent of no-till farming, a version of the trade that skips tilling or plowing for potentially healthier soil. The resource-conserving practice also cuts down on the chance of soil erosion and the need for pesticides and fertilizer.
Reeder serves as the executive director of the Ohio No-Till Council, of which Brandt was also president for 14 years. During the decades they spent together, Brandt made a name for himself as one of the county’s major no-till experts.
“I’ve been working with him maybe 30 years altogether,” Reeder said. “He was a real innovator in what we refer to as cover crops.” Cover crops are not planted for harvesting but simply to cover an area with vegetation that helps crowd out weeds, reduce erosion and fertilize soil, among other benefits.
Brandt had been no-till farming since 1971, taking on the practice thanks to blooming research on it at Ohio State University in the 1960s. A few years later, in 1978, Brandt added cover crops to his toolbelt. Rather than leaving his fields bare in between planting seasons for cash crops like corn or soybeans, Brandt would plant a crop like Austrian winter peas to improve the soil health and keep the ground covered. He normally wouldn’t harvest the cover crop, but during its life cycle, it would store nutrients like nitrogen in the soil, something he would need to manually add anyway for his cash crops.
“His goal was that he would get enough nitrogen from that cover crop to offset the nitrogen cost,” Reeder said.
The farming strategies that Brandt religiously applied for more than 40 years led the USDA, as well as foreign governments, to look to him as a role model. When the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service launched a program emphasizing soil health, Brandt’s farm became the poster child. He held annual soil health workshops in partnership with the NRCS and let crowds tour his farm during “no-till field days.”
French Minister of Agriculture and Food Stéphane Le Foll also toured Brandt’s farm during a 2015 visit to Ohio State University. He was so impressed by the farmer’s work, Reeder said Le Foll invited Brandt to France to work with no-till farmers there.
In a previous role, Reeder frequently organized agricultural conferences. The meme-famous farmer never charged to speak at the ones in Ohio and was happy to share his experience.
“If I have a conference, Dave Brandt’s going to be on it,” Reeder said.
“Honest work” meme attention aside, Reeder remembers his friend as an inspiration in the agricultural field.
“He was recognized nationally and also internationally as a top example of how farming could and should be done, promoting soil health in a way that is also saving the soil and profitable for the farmer,” Reeder said. “He’s not gonna be forgotten.”