Late into lockdown, around the time most people decided it was “over” enough to leave their apartments and rejoin society, I began knitting. Months after the big crafting boom, I told myself it wasn’t a new thing for me, but a return. I was retreating back to myself, when my mother would knit hats and I would try one too, handing the project over to her whenever it got to be more advanced than a purl stitch — a great way to learn nothing. This time, though, as an aging millennial with an internet addiction and too much time, it stuck differently. I jumped immediately and deeply into the obsession, knitting about three sweaters within the first couple months.
Hooked, I wanted to learn more. What is this whole looping string together thing? What even is the string? How does yarn come to be? I began researching, and stumbled upon the incredible world of farm influencers.
Often I forget how I arrive at my weeks-to-months-long obsessions, suddenly finding myself studying tiny house floor plans or reading Ted Kaczinskyi’s neighbor’s book (underrated read), with no idea of how I reached that point. Swedish death cleaning? No clue. My entry into farm influencers was more precise: a half-hour interview with Tammy White, of Wing and a Prayer Farm in Vermont.
Speaking from the 2020 New York State Sheep & Wool Festival, White covers many topics: differences of sheep and thus type of wool, shearing, spinning the fiber into yarn, the sale of goods, the difference between fiber farmers and shepherds from knitters, and most importantly: mittens with tufts of wool on the inside, so it feels like your hands are in a warm cloud. I watched the entire thing around 4 A.M. and found myself completely changed. When White invites viewers to “come and squish our wool,” and says, “they’re my Angora goats and I call them ‘the muppets,'” I mean, my gosh. It’s just the most charming thing.
Wing and a Prayer is far from the only farm with an online footprint. Their Instagram focuses on fiber and yarn production — no slaughtering, meat, or dairy production. Other accounts run the gamut from onion farmers to goat milk soap producers to livestock breeders. There’s even something called Useless Farm, a mysterious Canadian collection of emus, a silkie rooster, mini donkey, peacock, and other, um, useless animals. Once your algorithm learns what you’re looking for, you can expect to see top shelf farm content like Thor the fluffy cow, corn farmers dishing out difficult truths, the first “moo” of a newborn calf, horses whose neighbors keep calling because they think the sleeping horses are dead, urban farming, farm dates, farm husbands, farm wives, farm wine moms, farm brothers, farm sisters, so many cows, Black farm edition dance videos, lambs with fresh cuts, fuckboy lambs driving cars down the road, young farm love, and animal sanctuary after animal sanctuary after animal sanctuary.
I think part of the appeal of farm TikTok is that it feels like a real life children’s storybook. Look at the cows, the goats. See the farmer wake up with the sun, milking the cows into a tin bucket. Pouring the milk into glass bottles for morning delivery. An antiquated, imaginary look at what life might have been like early into industrialization, but is now a fantasy to cope with the absurd alienation we have from the cultivation of resources. Farming has become a great internet trope of gaming, too, from Farmville and Stardew Valley to the aptly named Farming Simulator. Even Minecraft and Animal Crossing are farm-adjacent.
In some ways farm TikTok and other niche communities like it remind me of a simpler time on the internet. My platonic conception of the web is still its use as a tool for connection between completely different people, random slices of another’s life. The gentrification of the internet has lost so much of that, paving over weird enclaves with a uniform social media service, requiring everyone to use their legal names. Farm TikTok, maybe because it is so different from my daily life in Manhattan, replicates the voyeurist connection that a mysterious dial-up and later, a long blue ethernet cord connection brought.
There is a disconnect between the internet we see and the invisible waves pinging in the air, the cables laid on the ocean floor that built the infrastructure of our digital selves from AngelFire to sending digital cash on our phones. So too is our disconnection from food. The entire farming industry is something of an open mystery to me and other citydwellers, as evidenced by notorious idiot Michael Bloomberg’s concept of farming, “I could teach anybody, even people in this room [Oxford business school students], to be a farmer. It’s a process. You dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, add water, up comes the corn.” It’s not rare to take the invention of agriculture for granted until the Dust Bowl pops up, or the 2014 lime shortage.
It’s almost as if these farm influencers are their own Studs Terkel, interviewing themselves about their work. Or George Kuchar, video-diarying their mundane errands for greater meaning. Or maybe they’re more like Frederick Wiseman, observing the systems that keep our society running.
In any case, it is also impossible to believe these farmers are the norm. They represent a small, artisanal corner of the sprawling agriculture industry. It used to be that candid videos of farms were mostly for vegan propaganda videos narrated by Joaquin Phoenix. And those farms, the brutal ones, typically do not have charming social media accounts. But maybe it’s precisely because they are not the norm, and instead a niche community of like-minded disparate people uniting through the ocean-laid wires of the web, that they carry some spirit of an older internet. Maybe there is hope for us yet.
Anyway, here is the worst farm TikTok:
Netscapes is a monthly column wherein Darcie Wilder explores the niche internet communities that have somehow managed to resist the flattening effect of an online world dominated by the algorithms.