The Ag Influencer: Kaitlyn Thornton Is Using Social Media and Her Marketing Degree to Grow the Family Orchard
“Hey y’all! It’s your favorite apple girl.”
That’s how 20-year-old Washington State University undergraduate and social-media influencer Kaitlyn Thornton often greets her more than 347,000 followers on TikTok, launching into the latest of her playful, educational videos about life on her family’s 440-acre apple and pear orchard in rural Tonasket, Wash. She tells The Chronicle her mission is to “connect producers and consumers, helping them feel better about where their food is coming from and understand where their dollars are going.’’
Thornton, who studies marketing at WSU’s Carson College of Business, is a fourth-generation orchardist. Her great-grandfather, Roy Thornton, moved to the Tonasket area around 1925. Her grandfather, Dell Thornton, was drafted into World War II, earned a Bronze Star, and then became a doctor on the G.I. Bill. He practiced in Republic, Wash., east of Tonasket, but would still sometimes work on the family farm, bringing along his son, Geoff, who would become Kaitlyn’s father.
Geoff and Dianne, Kaitlyn’s mom, expanded their farm from 23 acres to what it is today, raising Kaitlyn and her three siblings. By the time she was in her mid-teens, Kaitlyn decided she also wanted to embrace the farming life, using Facebook Marketplace to sell boxes of apricots, apples, and pears through her own business called Kait’s Crates. She sold 400 boxes in her first year and more in the years that followed. It was a decidedly digital-age approach to a family tradition begun nearly a century ago.
Around this same time, Kaitlyn accompanied her dad on some business trips, which included visits to grocery stores where apples were sold. After seeing how much his daughter enjoyed interacting with customers and how adept she was at talking about their fruit, Geoff told her that her extraversion could be an asset in their industry. She increasingly embraced the idea of becoming a marketer. “I’ve seen a lot of farmers who grow great quality crops but struggle on the business side,” Thornton says. “That’s why I decided to get a marketing degree.”
In high school, Thornton earned college credit through Washington State’s Running Start program, and so she’s on track to finish her degree this December, after only two and a half years at WSU. She also honed her public-speaking abilities before college by taking part in FFA, previously known as the Future Farmers of America, and began building a social-media presence to educate people about life on her orchard and farming more generally.
By the time she arrived on campus in 2021, she’d already amassed 80,000 followers on TikTok. She frequently returns home, often to help with harvests, capturing new content for her profile on her visits. (She also posts on Instagram, where she has more than 69,000 followers.)
Thornton’s most popular videos have millions of views, and they’ve gotten her a lot of attention. She’s worked with apparel brands and been featured in the Farmers’ Almanac. Whether she’s describing how bees pollinate trees, explaining how tree limbs give apples their blemishes, or simply showing off her pickup truck and lip-syncing to country music, her goal is always the same — to personalize farming, promote the agriculture industry, and leave viewers a little more knowledgeable about what they’re eating. “I once got asked, ‘Do apples really grow on trees?’” she says. “I was like, holy cow, people are really disconnected from their food.”
Thornton’s story reflects the desire of many rural students across the country to use higher education to support their families and the tiny, tight-knit towns in which they were raised. Thornton is planning her future around the orchard, though she’s going to explore other money-making opportunities in marketing within the broader agriculture industry following her graduation.
Instead of going to college to leave her upbringing behind, she went to school with home in mind. “I know I could go corporate,” she says, “doing all sorts of exciting things, but I understand the value of generational land. I’ve seen the blood, sweat, and tears my parents have put into what we’ve built. I value that, and I want to continue to build it.”
With cheerfulness and a sense of humor, Thornton invites viewers to see what’s fascinating, fun, surprising, and strange about her world in the orchard. She also tries to be deliberate about what she isn’t putting on social media. She calls herself “a conservative supporter of the Second Amendment” and proudly posts herself shooting rifles — she shot her first when she was five years old — but emphasizes that she’s “always in a very safe environment” for using guns.
“We’re aware that things sometimes go badly with guns, but when you grow up in the country you might have a cougar outside, like the one my dad had to shoot because it was killing deer right where my mom would walk. It’s just a different reality. That kind of stuff doesn’t happen in Seattle. I show those differences because I’m a genuine person and that’s part of my life, but I’m not saying ‘screw you if you’re trying to take our guns.’ I’m just showing that I’m a normal person using a gun. I’m not trying to offend anyone else.”
She avoids talking about politics, too. She’s well aware of the cultural divide between people in places like Tonasket — a town, she points out, “that doesn’t even have a stoplight” — and those elsewhere in her state and country. She notes that there’s also a straightforward business incentive: All kinds of people buy fruit, and she wants to appeal to as many of them as possible.
She doesn’t shy away from showing the challenges in farming life, including, of course, the weather. In one video, a sudden snowfall meant that she had to pack up fruit to deliver on the way to and at college. At one point, the view is from behind the wheel — the skies have darkened, the snow is falling, the windshield wipers are going, and she’s one of only five cars on a snowy pass. Thornton ultimately wound up staying the night at a cousin’s place and delivered the fruit — almost 40 boxes — to an architecture firm the next day. The final image is of her attending class still dressed in her farming gear. “Had to go to class in bibs” reads the caption.
Another regular focus of Thornton’s content is farming equipment and the many massive vehicles she and her family members drive. These include the oldest truck on the farm, a 1956 Kenworth — she says she loves its butterfly hood, which opens up on two sides, allowing easy access to the engine — as well as a 389 Peterbilt, “dad’s favorite kid"; and a fleet of International Harvester trucks. In addition to trucks and tractors — and their fuel, tires, engines, and exhaust pipes — she’ll showcase tools like air-blow guns and snowplows.
Thornton is no stranger to operating heavy machinery or doing hard physical labor. She clearly relishes managing the equipment as well as the sense of accomplishment she feels in helping out her family. In one video, she and her front-end loader, aka, “old Alice,” repair a pothole on one of the farm’s roads. Before climbing into the driver’s seat, Thornton bangs the tires for safety and checks the brake fluid, explaining each step of the process. She then revs the engine, and her face breaks into a wide grin. She puts dirt down to fill the hole, and then a layer of rocks on top.
Not surprisingly, animals are also part of her supporting cast, and they include lambs, pigs, her four chocolate Labradors, and her horse, Sheena. The dogs can often be spotted running alongside a country road or romping in the snow, and in one video, Thornton films herself pulling ticks off Sheena.
Thornton always seems to have a can-do attitude about these types of tasks, embracing the unpleasant — and even absurd — as natural parts of living and working on a farm. Her pride in the many different skills farmers must learn to succeed is also evident.
WSU is a four-and-a-half-hour drive from her hometown, but it’s not a completely unfamiliar environment: Thornton calls it “a farming town with a university in the middle of it.” She has a deep appreciation for the ties of rural places. “When I cross my county line on my way back home, there are waves of people who recognize my pickup — people I’ve known for years. That’s a strong sense of community. If I was broken down on the side of the road, within five minutes I’d probably have two people stopping to ask if I was OK.”
At WSU, Thornton has had to juggle academics, internships, social media, work with brands, and farm responsibilities. She goes home almost every weekend during harvest time.
But she loves the college and says she’s been embraced on campus, where many of her classmates know about her internet persona and one marketing class has even discussed her as a social-media success story.
“I’m a very social person,” she says, “so I would just talk to everybody, and people started to become aware of me. I’d go to parties and people would say, ‘Oh, you’re the apple girl!’”
Earlier this year, she took a study-abroad trip to Switzerland alongside 150 students representing over 60 nationalities and was delighted to hear many of them recite her TikTok tagline — “It’s your favorite apple girl” — in various accents from around the world.
It was an “absolutely life-changing experience,” she says.
During her three-month trip, Thornton says, she was able to make new industry connections and toured a number of farms, including some in Germany and Italy, while learning more about hospitality, event management, different farming techniques, and international tourism.
Tourism is part of the future Thornton envisions for her orchard. Over the long term, she’d like customers to be able to visit the property as a kind of destination, maybe with a restaurant and a truck stop, and come away with cups of coffee and sandwiches, along with her family’s apples and pears. Thornton has started to think more deeply about what might be required to achieve financial stability moving forward, especially after her family’s business almost went bankrupt a couple years back. “I want to learn more about how to leverage our farm by getting multiple streams of revenue and a strong cash flow,” she says. “I don’t think it’s feasible anymore to simply farm.”
In the meantime, Thornton is proud that she’s inspiring others, including other farmers, to tell their own stories on social media — and reminding them why their stories are worth telling in the first place. “A lot of farmers don’t think what they do is that interesting,” she says. “They do it on a day-to-day basis, so they forget that a lot of their work is incredible, and people are amazed by it.”