He was a beloved farming legend. But for Reddit, his work ethic meant something else
The death of David Brandt, an Ohio agricultural giant who became the face of a popular meme, is sending shockwaves through two communities, both of whom are remembering him fondly for the opposite messages he came to represent.
Brandt died last Saturday after being injured in a car crash, his family confirmed to NPR.
For farmers across the U.S., he was known as a leader and mentor, a man credited with pushing farmers along Ohio's corn belt to adopt the sustainable agriculture technique of no-till farming.
But for dry-humored social media users, Brandt will be remembered as the random face behind the "honest work" meme, a shorthand way to poke fun at what constitutes labor, real or imagined, in the internet age.
How does a farmer from Ohio reach global internet ubiquity?
In the original version of the meme, Brandt is seen standing off-center in a yellow-green field, clad in overalls and plaid, squinting into the sunlight, looking very much like a stereotypical farmer. "It ain't much, but it's honest work," reads the accompanying phrase, no other context provided.
Know Your Meme, a Wikipedia-esque internet database, traces the meme back to the social media site Reddit in the year 2018, when a Redditor (@Pettergra) created the meme to share on the r/MemeEconomy subreddit.
The inaugural post came with a caption about the futility of trying to get upvotes (Reddit's currency for likes) on original content: "When you post OC and get 10 upvotes instead of reposting for thousands."
That post, ironically, earned more than 15,000 upvotes. The "honest work" meme was born.
Today, the image is so recognizable online that versions might cover Brandt's face or the original saying, and the joke still comes through. But at its core, the meme most often gives life to the mundane accomplishments of modern existence.
"When you log into a Zoom meeting, say 'hi,' go on mute, don't say a word, go off mute at the end just to say 'bye' and log off," reads one caption.
Another variation: "When you answer only one question in a 50 question exam and your answer is correct."
NPR reached out to @pettergra particularly interested to know how the meme creator discovered Brandt's image (and whether, for example, they had a special interest in soil health), but the account hadn't responded by the time of publication.
It appears @pettergra took the image from a U.S. Department of Agriculture campaign for soil health awareness. Brandt hosted the campaign's kickoff from his farm in Carroll, Ohio, in 2012; his photo was included in a blog post on the campaign two years later.
It's unclear whether (and if so, where) Brandt uttered the "honest work" phrase, but those who know him say it fits. Social media users may apply it sarcastically, but Brandt actually did work hard with honesty — and he was humble about it all.
"It was fitting, because he was not someone who looked for notoriety, or to be famous or be an important person," his son Jay told NPR. "His goal was always education: He wanted to make people aware of options and help them feel that they had the capability to make change."
The real-life Brandt believed in a different kind of "honest work"
Brandt began farming in the late 1960s after earning three purple hearts for his service in the Vietnam War. But not long after he got started, his father was killed in a tractor accident.
Forced to sell the family land and start over, Brandt was looking for ways to cut down on costs. He started experimenting with no-till farming in 1971, just as research into the practice was starting to take off at nearby Ohio State University.
Combined with the use of cover crops and crop rotation, the practice is heralded today as key to the sustainable farming movement. When done correctly, no-till farming can decrease input costs for farmers. And it helps fight global warming by increasing carbon storage and nutrient density in the soil.
Brandt wasn't just an early advocate for sustainable farming; he became a scientist of sorts himself, always experimenting with better methods and testing out ideas.
He'll be listed as a co-author on a forthcoming article in the journal Science — a weighty accomplishment for a man with only a high school degree, but also just the latest example of Brandt's respect among the research community. Brandt hosted the French agricultural minister on his farm in 2015. He spoke at the 2017 Paris Climate Conference. Companies like Chevron and Monsanto sponsored him to promote conservation activities.
For everyday farmers, Brandt was a teacher, a mentor and a friend. A jovial presence whose laughter was infectious, he shared his learnings widely, often hosting workshops and lectures on his farm and traveling across the country to speak.
He started an agricultural consulting business and sold cover crop seed, but he was never afraid to dish out free advice; he valued people over profits in every circumstance, one of his friends told NPR.
"Dave wanted every farmer to succeed," said Randall Reeder, a fellow soil health pioneer. "One thing that made him so effective, that made everyone want to listen, is because he wasn't just talking; he was talking about things he was doing on his own farm. He talked about failures as much as success."
His earnestness may have been why it didn't bother him that he was cast, without his knowledge, as a revolving character in the internet's language of inside jokes.
Brandt didn't even know what a meme was until his friends started sending him links and screenshots, his son said. At one point, a friend sent a picture of a billboard in Texas bearing the image.
His friends and family said that, once he understood the concept, he loved it.
"He just thought it was so funny," Reeder said.
"Now I think half the responses we're getting [to Brandt's death] are people who know him as the man behind the meme," he added. "That's the lead paragraph on some of these news stories."
Two different types of memorials are playing out for the same man
Brandt was severely injured after being involved in a car crash near Urbana, Ill., on May 18. He'd been returning from a trip to pick up a batch of corn seed during what's traditionally peak planting season in Ohio.
Brandt was still working at age 76, farming on more than 1,000 acres and selling seed for cover crops alongside his son, daughter-in-law and grandson.
Now his family is finishing up planting this week without him. His grandson, Christopher, is planning to take over the family business, which would've made Brandt incredibly proud, Jay said.
The family plans to hold memorials for Brandt throughout the year at the various no-till conferences and agricultural events he frequented. A more intimate celebration of life at his farm, scheduled for early June, is already attracting national attention, Reeder said.
"I've talked to two farmers — one from Oklahoma, and one from Iowa — who both say they're planning to drive out here for the memorial," Reeder said. "Dave has become friends with so many people because of his generosity."
Online, too, thousands of strangers have weighed in on posts and chats, offering memorials of their own.
But there was also a noticeable pattern in the comments sections for posts on his passing: An air of soft self-reflection, even subtle surprise, replaced what can sometimes be a sea of knee-jerk reaction and irreverent humor.
"Makes you wonder who some of the people behind memes are," one user wrote in response to an obituary that received more than 54,000 up votes.
"Our friend here was amazing," another wrote after learning about Brandt through an obituary. "Truly a super hero without the cape."
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