Kalem Berntsen, alias The kiwi fruit producer, makes very popular YouTube videos about plants. For IRL, he tells Shanti Mathias how he developed a career as an influencer and why plant-based content is so popular right now.
I have always been interested in plants. I grew up in the Coromandel near the beach and the forest which developed my passion for nature. I first became interested in succulents and cacti, realizing how easy they were to propagate, taking a small leaf and growing a whole plant. And then my family built a wildlife pond, and I got interested in aquatic plants. As a teenager, I became interested in fruit trees and growing food, especially unusual and rare fruits.
I started making videos when I was 19. I was experimenting with growing things from seeds and decided to try growing a coconut from some store bought fruit. Amazingly, it worked, it sprouted, and I hadn’t seen any information of people documenting coconut cultivation online. The video unexpectedly became very popular and helped me connect with other gardeners around the world. I decided to continue uploading other things I was growing. It didn’t seem intentional, or like I had an end goal, it was just fun to share what I was passionate about. I have always been a creative person.
My three most popular videos are the ones where I grow gourdswhere i grew up seed avocadosand one where I take the seeds from the fruit I went to the supermarket and grew the plants. These reached new people, and they started finding my old videos and watching them as well.
At the moment, the process of creating a video looks like this. I will be doing some initial research and filming throughout the plant growth process, capturing each stage of growth. The end result of the video will be a mix of my observations and things I learned along the way. I feel responsible for ensuring that the information is accurate; I spend a lot of time researching to verify what I say and sharing interesting and unique information about each plant.
Because I grow things, each video takes a long time to shoot, from three months to over a year. We transform part of the property in a food forest, which means a lot of biodiversity and successive plantings, a lot of plants to watch out for. I start cultivating the plant and document the process with many updates. This means that I always work on a lot of videos at once, so I can post regularly, which is quite difficult. It takes a lot of planning.
Working with plants can be quite unpredictable, not everything is successful. The final scenario of the video is drawn only when the plant has finished growing. If something is a huge flop and I can’t make the video I planned, I’ll try to incorporate it into another video, or an update on the food forest we’re growing on the property. I also want to share inspiring things. Failure is part of gardening; I really want to show people that, so they don’t feel bad if something doesn’t work, and encourage them to try again. This is what makes you a better gardener.
Then I have to post the video. There is a science to working with the algorithm, you have to focus a lot on the title, the thumbnail, and also keep people interested along the way to get YouTube to show it to more people. For each video, I’ll create ten or more titles and several different thumbnails before choosing one, because I know how much of a difference a slight wording change can make in people’s decision to watch the video or not. Sometimes I feel like a video will work just fine, but I don’t always intend for something to go viral. I also want to serve my existing audience, and sometimes I just make a video because it’s something I’m really passionate about.
Ironically, I definitely spend more time online than gardening at present. It’s a difficult balance to manage, because there’s so much time to manage the YouTube channel, from planning, scripting, editing, engaging with audiences, sponsorship deals, and it all takes a lot of time. Luckily my partner helps me in the garden, so between us we get things done.
I took a big break from YouTube when I moved to town and became a zookeeper. But when I came back five years later and restarted the channel, people were still there. As I started making new videos documenting the transformation of two acres of bare grass into a thriving productive garden, I had a few comments saying that my first videos had inspired them to take up gardening, and now they were working in horticulture. It’s so amazing that the videos I made as a hobby have had this impact on people. There are so many positive feedbacks, most people are really awesome.
I only really started treating the channel as a full-time channel in the last six months, and it’s grown exponentially in that time. I still have another job where I work two days a week but I am training someone to replace me. It’s my full-time job now! I feel so lucky to be able to build a career doing something I’m passionate about and hopefully make a difference for people while being able to support myself.
It’s a bit difficult to understand the hundreds of thousands of people watching my videos; I can’t imagine so many people. I feel so lucky that people care about what I share, it’s pretty cool to connect with so many people.
Many people live in cities and are not connected to nature as much as they would like. I think that’s part of why plant content is so important online. There is almost an innate thing in man to be attracted to nature. There seems to be an additional spike in interest since the pandemic. For indoor plants, people are spending more time indoors and want to create a space they love to be in. A lot of my videos are about food culture, a lot of people have seen the addiction they have to supermarkets and supply chains, and seeing empty shelves made them think. Growing your own food is a way of feeling like you have more control and autonomy, more of a relationship with what you eat.
I have a few videos coming up that really excites me – one where I grow some unusual fruits from around the world, like Australian Lime, Bitter Gourds and Austrian Shelled Pumpkin. Longer term, however, I would really like my channel to be a go-to place for gardening inspiration and useful information that people can follow, covering as many fruits and edible plants as possible. But what satisfies me the most is bringing new people to gardening, showing them that it’s not something difficult or inaccessible, it’s something they can try on their own. themselves.
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Public interest journalism funded by NZ On Air.