The Strange Allure of Pioneer Living

How Shaye Elliott became the Gwyneth Paltrow of America’s growing homesteading movement

Andy Friedman

Running late after several wrong turns, I made a final, desperate attempt to locate Shaye Elliott’s home by driving into what appeared to be an apple orchard. Down a dirt path, past a gaggle of squawking geese, in the shadow of the town’s 10-story cross, there it was: the two-acre property outside Wenatchee, Washington, on which Elliott cultivates nearly all the food she feeds herself, her husband, and their four children. The Elliotts’ squat three-bedroom house, which they renovated themselves, was nestled among a pigpen, a rabbit hutch, a chicken coop, two pastures, and three gardens, the sum total of which Elliott refers to as her “homestead”—a nod to the back-to-basics, pioneer-inflected movement that inspired her lifestyle.

Shortly after I arrived, Elliott started preparing breakfast. As she poached eggs taken from her coop and sizzled potatoes in fat rendered from ducks she’d slaughtered last fall, she recounted a recent trip to Los Angeles. She still seemed scarred by the experience. “I couldn’t bear it,” she told me. “Everything smelled like Lysol and Febreze, and I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, the sound of the traffic!’ ” That visit had admittedly been better than her previous one, when she ate “that kind of food”—a restaurant salad prepared with conventionally grown ingredients—and promptly threw up.

Elliott, who is 32 years old, “homesteads” not because it’s practical (it’s not) or because she grew up farming (she didn’t) but because, she says, modern technology “has stripped people of their purpose.” In hopes of “drawing on and learning things of the past,” she has for eight years rejected an increasing number of modern conveniences. Like the 19th-century homesteaders who traveled west in covered wagons, she churns butter, stocks her larder before winter, and treats illnesses with herbs. Unlike the pioneers, however, she enthusiastically broadcasts her life to an audience of Instagram followers, YouTube subscribers, book buyers, and 100,000 monthly readers of her blog, The Elliott Homestead. One of her chickens, Helen, has become a celebrity for antics like sneaking into the house to peck at butter. “You think these Instagram Stories are made up,” Elliott said as a less famous chicken wandered through the front door. “Very much not.”

Elliott belongs to a growing network of bloggers who have tapped into—and fueled—the growing homesteading movement, which encourages self-reliance through the embrace of traditional skills and subsistence farming. A homesteader seeks to “be a producer and not just a consumer,” Elliott said. (She and others distinguish themselves from farmers in harvesting food solely for their own needs, not to sell.) The appeal of this retro-agrarian lifestyle transcends ideological differences, uniting farmwives and feminists, hippies and Christians, preppers and yuppies, from Brooklyn to rural Alaska. Despite its ostensible rejection of consumerism, the subculture has spawned a brisk trade in homesteading-themed TV shows, books, gear, and courses. Last year, the inaugural Homesteaders of America conference drew 1,500 attendees—more than twice the expected turnout—and organizers expect hundreds more this year.

No single definition qualifies someone as a homesteader, but bloggers’ neo-frontier dispatches generally combine elements of Goop, Little House on the Prairie, and Mad Max. The more extreme ones offer tips on building yurts without plumbing (but with Wi-Fi) or finding water in the event of societal collapse. Most provide instruction on insourcing necessities, such as forging knives, making deodorant, and spinning wool.

Like a disproportionate number of these bloggers, Elliott is a white woman with a bearded husband, homeschooled children, faith in Jesus Christ, and many photos of soulful cows. Her posts range from the practical (“Homemade Fly Spray (That Really Works!)”) to the personal (“Date Night With My Man”). Generously sprinkled with ol’s and Amens, they read like emails from a down-to-earth friend. Her vision of homesteading is nostalgic but comfortable, escapist but accessible, even to followers who still shop at supermarkets. She milks her cow Cecilia each morning and forages raspberry leaves for tea, but also invests in shabby-chic chandeliers and a refrigerator. (“Indoor plumbing is a really beautiful gift,” according to Elliott, who does not aspire to total self-sufficiency.)

The top social-media influencers’ followings dwarf Elliott’s, but she has one of the larger audiences in homestead circles. Her reach has been amplified by a Food Network pilot and four lushly illustrated books, which have been sold in Target and Costco stores.

Homesteading, romanticized by nearly every generation save the one that originally endured it, has routinely been embraced by Americans during periods of anxiety and upheaval. “The entire history of America is that in times of political and economic insecurity, people revert to a very visceral sense that taking control of their food and of their homes is where security lies,” says Toni Smith, a homesteader and an English professor at Vancouver Island University. Smith notes that the back-to-the-land movement especially resonates with middle-class white Americans: “The Little House on the Prairie touchstone is their default.” (Not surprisingly, the term homesteading has been criticized by some observers of the current movement, in part for its associations with a government policy that had disastrous consequences for American Indians.)

Versions of homesteading flourished after the Great Depression, during the Vietnam War, in the years before Y2K, during the Great Recession, and again more recently, amid the rise of an anti-establishment ethos. When I asked Elliott, who leans libertarian, why her lifestyle resonates among progressives and Tea Partiers alike, she said, “I think a common thread is a mistrust in the Man.”

Elliott’s interest in homesteading increased as her faith in the food system waned. The daughter of a probation officer and a dental hygienist, she grew up on low-fat Oreos in Wenatchee, the self-proclaimed “apple capital of the world.” While dating a boy who raised livestock, she fell in love with cows. She studied beef production at Washington State University and then worked at a feedlot, but she quit after six months, disgusted by the mistreatment of the cattle. “The entire system just didn’t seem to add up,” she said. She juggled various jobs—in real estate, insurance, floristry—while small experiences nudged her toward a more hands-on approach to life. Reading The Balanced Plate—a celebration of organic, macrobiotic, and Ayurvedic cuisine—convinced her “that what you eat affects your health.” Meeting a co-worker who knit—“just the most romantic, old-fashioned thing I’d ever seen”—inspired her to do the same.

Although Elliott says she and her husband, Stuart, were “stupid poor” when their first child was born, in 2010, she stopped working and began doing more by hand, while the growing family lived off Stuart’s $28,000 teaching salary. Elliott studied homesteading blogs to master skills like making chicken stock and canning, then launched a blog of her own, even though her “homestead” then amounted to little more than potted herbs. Within three years, she’d purchased her first cow, which she found on Craigslist.

Making staples from scratch has since become second nature. While we spoke, Elliott picked kale to garnish the eggs; after breakfast she seamlessly transitioned to baking bread, marinating a leg of a lamb she’d butchered last fall, tidying up with homemade cleaning products, and washing the dishes, which she enjoys doing by hand. “It forces me to slow down a bit, which I appreciate,” she said. Meanwhile, her husband fed animals, chased down a stray lamb, and repaired the fence through which it had escaped.

Their activities echoed scenes on other homesteading blogs: men hammering and sawing, wives cooking and caring for children. At a time when women are advocating for more equitable treatment, was Elliott’s shift toward traditional gender roles deliberate? “It’s kind of just the natural form of things in this lifestyle,” she said. She is a devout follower of Reformed Presbyterianism, a sect of Protestantism that views the Bible as the literal word of God, and she believes that men and women “were designed with specific roles.” “We’ve spent so much time and energy fighting that,” she told me. “And I don’t think that makes people happier.” She tends to her crops in makeup and false lashes; after tidying up the kitchen, she disappeared to apply lipstick and concealer.

Although homesteading sites tend to celebrate the cult of domesticity—Elliott has a post commending the modest femininity of long skirts from the Edwardian era—the offline reality is more complicated: Like many young women who’ve amassed large online followings by documenting their lives as homemakers, she is her family’s breadwinner. In 2014, a fellow blogger recruited her to sell essential oils for doTerra, a multilevel marketing company whose logo is plastered across homesteading sites. Within a year, her business was so profitable that Stuart quit his job; Elliott now makes $500,000 a year selling to fellow “oilers.” Her blog, which helps her recruit customers and salespeople, is heavy on suggestions for using oils. In one 10-day period on Instagram, she demonstrated how geranium oil could heal a duck’s infected foot, how lemongrass could repel pests, and how Roman chamomile and rosemary had cured her son’s hives.

Instagramming from a haven established to escape technology’s frenzied pace may seem incongruous, but Elliott insists that social media provide advice and moral support, which are lacking in the isolated areas where many homesteaders settle. “Most people still don’t live this way. You’re kind of the odd man out,” she said, adding that she’d met her best friends, who all live in different states, through their blogs. “If I have a problem with my cow I have one local person I can call that would know what’s up. If I go online, I can ask 10.”

The rest of Elliott’s day elapsed in a series of chores: weeding, picking spinach for lunch, cleaning up after the chickens, weeding some more, feeding the pigs, weeding again. She rejects the idea that success should involve anything more than maintaining a home. “We live in a culture that’s very epic. Everything needs to be epic and awesome … Living a very average life? That’s seen as you not living up to your potential. And I really fight against that. I think the everyday is the point of our life,” she said. “It’s okay to be in the kitchen working with a baby on your hip. That isn’t a regressive thing; it is an intentional thing.”

By and large, homesteading’s champions have embraced their way of life for reasons more spiritual than utilitarian. The “About Me” sections of other homesteading sites are filled with stories of how debt and burnout inspired the author to find a path that did not require sacrificing life for livelihood. Like Marie Antoinette’s pleasure dairy, tilling the soil and milking cows acquire a certain charm when they are a choice, not a necessity. Elliott readily concedes that if the broccoli harvest fails—as it has every other year—her family won’t starve; they’ll use their doTerra money to stock up at the supermarket. Abandoning the status quo is itself a luxury: Elliott estimates that starting a homestead like hers demands at least $25,000, not including land.

Supporting this back-to-basics lifestyle in many cases requires homesteading bloggers to tether themselves to the mainstream, if not through multilevel marketing, then via Google ads, Etsy shops, sponsored posts, or paywalled content, which Elliott plans to introduce. For neo-pioneers like her, a thriving homestead is funded by individuals who are still in the rat race and lust after escape.

After I left, Elliott posted on Instagram a photo of the hollyhocks and black-eyed Susans in her garden, accompanied by the caption “Phone down. Eyes up. Breath deep.” It received more than 1,200 likes. “Beautiful garden, love the phone down idea!!” wrote one follower.

This article appears in the November 2018 print edition with the headline “The Homesteader.”