4 min read.Updated: 24 Aug 2021, 11:25 AM ISTRory Satran, The Wall Street Journal
Curated images on social media feature fresh eggs and rodeo styles, not some rural realities; ‘I show the good, the bad, but not the ugly’
Hannah Neeleman, a rancher and entrepreneur in Kamas, Utah, has found a following on social media for sunlit images of her rural life with her husband and six rosy-cheeked children.
The reigning Mrs. Utah and Juilliard-trained ballerina posts photos of dancing in the barn in cowboy boots; cooking on “Agnes," her hunter-green Aga stove; and milking cows at dusk, all in support of the family’s Ballerina Farm brand, which includes an e-commerce site that sells meat as well as sundries like cute sweatshirts.
What doesn’t make the cut: expeditions the family makes to 7-Eleven for hot dogs when farm life inevitably gets too busy for a home-cooked meal. “I’m not sharing that, but we do it," said Ms. Neeleman, who has over 200,000 followers on Instagram. “We do go get Slurpees occasionally."
Ms. Neeleman and other creators of farming-lifestyle content are part of the rise of “farm-fluencers," a social-media subculture devoted to portraying a bucolic vision of farm life. The result appears to be a charming, rustic dream. Reality is sometimes different. “I show the good, the bad, but not the ugly," Ms. Neeleman said.
It can take some effort to keep jarring images of less appealing rural routines and modern life out of the frame.
Shaye Elliott, a Malaga, Wash., online entrepreneur behind the Elliott Homestead content universe of videos and books, said she once attempted to decorate her four children’s rooms in the old-fashioned style of the rest of her home. “I tried to make those cute and charming and vintage, and it went down in flames," she said. The inevitable chaos of kid stuff soon took over.
Now she lets the kids decorate their rooms as they please, meaning “bunk beds, lots of “Frozen" things, lots of Legos," she admitted.
A rural aesthetic was already on the rise in 2020—known as “cottagecore." Picture Gen-Z fans of Taylor Swift emulating the singer by taking walks in the forest in hand-knit cardigans.
When even city dwellers found themselves at home during Covid lockdowns, it rose to greater heights and became “farmcore." For those new to bread baking, gardening and home schooling kids, it provided an appealing road map to self-sufficiency.
Lisa Bass, the Missouri founder of the lifestyle blog Farmhouse on Boone, described the look as “a lot of things on display that are useful, like baskets that you pull off the wall that you use to get your bread to rise, and things that maybe you could harvest from your own farmstead, [and] eggs sitting out."
Those artfully composed baskets of eggs—bonus points for a couple of blue ones—are a hallmark, plus hanging hams and kitchens lined with copper pans.
Children can be seen dressed in rodeo outfits—buttoned-up shirts, cowboy hats and boots—and in dresses out of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Jill Winger said she sometimes cringes when one of her children appears in videos wearing a fluorescent tank top, thinking: “That is not a prairie child outfit."
“Kids definitely can make a beautiful space not so beautiful," said the Wyoming-based creator of the Prairie Homestead, which encompasses a podcast, a blog, a cookbook, cooking courses and an e-commerce site. “Am I going to allow a giant pink princess play set in the front yard? That’s not really our vibe."
However, she said, “I try not to over-curate because I don’t want my kids to get resentful of what we do."
It isn’t just the stray “Paw Patrol" sweatshirt that might mar a picture-perfect scene. There’s also the gory, gooey reality of farm life. As any homesteader will tell you, droppings and death are as central to the lifestyle as the cerulean eggs.
Angela Reed, who named her content company Parisienne Farmgirl because of her love for Paris and French culture, said the photos taken at her Deer County, Wis., farm contained multitudes. “If I’m in my kitchen and I’ve got a beautiful roll of pancetta…it’s gorgeous, you can see the herbs. It’s giving you all the feelings," she said. “What’s behind that pancetta? It’s me raising that pig and the smell that goes with that pig."
(She said the aroma is that of an “extremely magnified" raw pork chop.)
Ms. Reed’s husband does the “dispatching" of the animals, but she handles cutting the meat into pieces herself.
And then there’s the waste. “The amount of manure my cow makes that we have to move with a tractor is alarming," Ms. Reed confessed. “There’s nothing charming about it." That particular chore doesn’t make it to Instagram.
Farms have a dual nature, she said: “You fall in love with it, but then there’s just the ick side, too."
The icky stuff of farms may be filtered out of the influencers’ social media, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. “It is a beautiful symphony that comes together when you have a small farm," said Ms. Neeleman. “But there is heartache and there is loss and there is sickness, and the kids see things that most kids will never see or understand."
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