When goat birth goes well, the tiny, limp baby fires out in a red and yellow slime of blood, burst sacs, and fluids, which its mother will immediately begin lapping up with her tongue. When it doesn’t—maybe the baby is badly positioned or too big, or the mother too exhausted from her labor—the baby can get stuck. That’s what happened to Penny, a cranky Nigerian dwarf goat who happens to belong to a family of YouTubers, while she delivered her second baby this year.
“Reach in and bring both legs forward,” says Lydia, the family’s tween-age daughter, reading from an old-timey birthing book. Her mother, DaNelle, tries to find the baby’s legs with latex-gloved hands, but she can’t. She has to grab whatever’s bulging from Penny’s body and yank while Penny screams, fretting aloud that she might be killing the baby. The little thing lies wet and lifeless on a blanket.
At this point, soft city slicker that I am, I decide to check the comments for signs of tragedy. “I was so impressed with how Lydia kept calm and reassured her mom when the little boy goat came out not breathing,” reads the top comment. “So mature!”
“Thank you!” DaNelle wrote back. “She’s been through so many births with me, I knew I could count on her!”
I unpause the video. The baby goat starts to breathe.
This family, the stars of Weed 'em and Reap, a YouTube channel with more than 225,000 subscribers, lives on a one-acre plot in Phoenix, Arizona. They consider themselves modern farmers: They have a big garden, raise goats for milk and chickens for eggs and meat, but that stuff just barely pays for itself. Their real income, the cash flow that puts clothes on backs and extra pellets in feeders and covers the occasional Starbucks trip, is YouTube AdSense.
Weed 'em and Reap is part of a subgenre of channels that make up YouTube’s homesteading movement. In this context, “homestead” no longer carries its original definition—a government-granted plot of undeveloped land—but is meant to evoke pioneer lifestyle and aesthetic. “I dub what we do modern homesteading,” says Al Lumnah, front man for Lumnah Acres. “We all grew up romanticizing Little House on the Prairie, but I like running water. I like my KitchenAid mixer.”
The movement’s values are broadly back-to-the-land, but it contains members on- and off-grid, vegans and experts in hunting and butchery, Floridians harvesting 100-pound bunches of bananas and Alaskans chiseling ice off their outhouses, people with roaring orange tractors and others who slowly, near-silently mow down entire fields using only a scythe.
“You have hippies and people who open-carry firearms in public places—revolutionaries from both sides of the aisle,” says Julianne, whose channel, Dirtpatcheaven, has covered everything from living in a tiny house to composting to mounted archery. “We’re united by our mistrust in government. The more we can produce ourselves in our own homes, the less control the government or our communities have.” It’s little wonder that, as our anxieties keep spiking and public trust in government is hovering near historic lows, these channels continue to grow and multiply.
That said, most of these modern homesteaders didn’t set out on this venture to thumb their noses at the nanny state. Nearly all cited the same impetus: their own failing health, or concerns for the health of their family. “Antidepressants didn’t work for me,” Lumnah says. “But what I ate and how I ate had a huge impact, mentally.” So the Lumnahs started growing their own food, and their homestead grew from there. Their garden needed compost, so they got chickens; the chickens weren’t eating all the excess produce the garden produced, so they got pigs to gobble up the rest of their waste stream (and turn it into even more compost). Most others had similar trajectories. Life in the city and 9-to-5 jobs weren’t working, so they drifted further toward agrarian lifestyles as they built confidence.
The skills they gained are rare, and therefore hard-won. “In some ways there is an overwhelming amount of information. If you search ‘rendering lard’ you’ll get tons and tons of hits,” says Caroline Thomas of Homesteading Family. Trouble is, much of that information is bad or incomplete. “Many people teaching these things have never had to live with the consequences. It was a fun side project for them, not a food source for the next 12 months.” Homesteading Family—like most of these channels—began as a way to fill the knowledge gaps the homesteaders themselves had fallen into. (Thomas is a natural teacher. While we chatted, she shared her family’s favorite way to preserve tomatoes: fermenting them for three weeks minimum. Mine are still doing time in the brine, but they look good and accidentally trendy. The line between homesteader and hipster is sometimes a fine one.)
Especially for smaller channels, the audience appeal of homesteading YouTube is primarily the old-time agrarian know-how. “A lot of women, when they start [a homesteading channel], they try a few bikini shots in the thumbnails and a sexy vibe. I certainly did. If thought maybe if my clothes were cuter, or my makeup was darker … but it doesn’t last,” Julianne says. “Most of the homesteading audience is Christian, back to roots, back to grandma. If you don’t know anything, it’s very obvious and people will stop watching.” The homesteading YouTube comments section is the most knowledgeable I’ve ever encountered: If a YouTuber is doing something wrong, there’s always some sheep or peach-tree or rainwater-collection expert there to troubleshoot and offer advice.
Still, homesteading is not an isolated bunker in YouTube’s backwoods, immune to the trends and scandals of the mainstream. Julianne cites master vlogger Casey Neistat as an influence and bemoaned the “adpocalypse” brought on by Pewdiepie and the Paul brothers’ behavior. “Now we’re so politically correct,” she says. “We’re afraid to show butchering. Anything to do with guns is taboo.”
Others have taken different paddling lessons from the mainstream. Weed 'em and Reap, Lumnah Acres, and the Homesteading Family have all transitioned from straightforward how-tos to something more akin to a lifestyle channel. “A lot of our audience is aspiring to this lifestyle in one way or another,” says Josh Thomas, the other half of Homesteading Family. “We’re trying to reach people who are unsure, who have a dream they think they can get to in 10, 15 years, and convince them to start now and where they’re at.” Their audiences include fellow homesteaders and the homestead-curious, but also people who just want to garden casually or ferment some tomatoes or just look at some farm animals. DaNelle has intentionally made her goats into characters rather than extras—if she omits one from a vlog, viewers will ask after them by name, concerned.
Sometimes she worries about what will happen when the heavily edited idyll that’s endeared their human-and-animal family to so many butts up against the realities of farming. “It’s not like we’re eating our goats, but we do make our old hens into broth. Our oldest goats, Penny and Luna, are getting old,” Danelle says. “Most people in the goat world would put them down when they get leg problems. You don’t put them on diabetes medicine. Can the audience handle that?” (Personally, I could not. Luna has more personality than most of my relatives.)
In some ways, intentional farm living seems somewhat at odds with a career on social media. Julianne admits to “thinking of social media as the devil, deep in my little prepper heart.” She also understands that social media is less a lifestyle than a resource—for preserving information, for teaching skills. Having a camera set up in her garden pays her mortgage. “There are two camps at looking at our time in history,” Caroline Thomas says. “Some people look back and think the good-old days were perfect. Other people look at our future and think those are gonna be the good days. We need to find that healthy, balanced place between the two.”
Modern homesteaders seem to be trying to embody that balance. If the rest of the world goes to shit, at least they're prepared.