The Times newspaper has run a feature about a group of women herding cattle and wielding chainsaws in their thongs.
When you first visit the King’s Hill ranch in northern California, there are a couple of things you notice right away. You notice the animals: the sheep and the goats, the alpacas, horses and flocks of poultry.
But more than anything, you notice the girls. It’s hard not to. Because everyone working at King’s Hill is a young woman. Also – and this is important – they really enjoy wearing bikinis. Not all the time. Of course not. That would be impractical. “If we’re working with the animals then we’re not going to be in our thongs,” says Doris Molakides, a slim 39-year-old with long black hair who owns and oversees the 400-acre operation. But, she continues, yes, if it’s hot and they are just doing harvesting work or other farmyard chores then she and her troupe of young seasonal workers will strip down to their beachwear. “I mean, we’re in the sun every single day and we don’t want tan lines. If there are no guys around, we will take our tops off.”
You notice the remoteness, the acre after acre of sun-drenched farmland spread across rugged green hills, miles from the nearest town. You also notice an intense sense of industry, from the rumble of coming and going pick-up trucks to the distant buzz of chainsaws felling trees.
Now and then, some of them will strip down to nothing and go about their busy day of commercial agriculture. “We’ll get naked,” she says brightly. “We oil ourselves up and get pruning.”
What is this place? Why is it worked exclusively by cheerful, body-confident women? Why is one of the girls, Lexie, feeding chickens while wearing what I can only really describe as a G-string? Why is Molakides practising her marksmanship with an automatic rifle – she has completed several tactical shooting courses – in a tight, white miniskirt? What’s going on? I am, for better or worse, not actually at the King’s Hill ranch. Instead, like many thousands of other people, I have been following events here on Instagram. Molakides runs an account called @GirlsGoneOffGrid in which she documents daily life on her selfsufficient, off-grid ranch. It shows Molakides and her fellow workers helping their goats to give birth, harvesting walnuts, slaughtering turkeys and, until a recent change in the law prohibited them from doing so, cultivating industrial quantities of marijuana. Often while wearing bikinis.
For some reason, Molakides says, many people look at these images and videos and assume they are contrived. “There are so many people commenting like, ‘Oh, this can’t be real! This is fake!'” she says. But it really, really is real. “I guess I just wanted to document what we were doing. It wasn’t for show. It wasn’t for anything,” she says, shrugging. Only now she has more than 10,000 followers and counting, as well as half a dozen TV production companies eager to turn life at King’s Hill into a reality show. Molakides says that the producers all tell her that they would need to establish some kind of central narrative: a rich, prissy city slicker who comes to stay and slowly learns about life on a self-sufficient ranch, “and then of course all the surrounding drama is going to be, like, all of us in bikinis and stuff”. Actually, come to think of it, she continues, there’s a German TV production company that seems pretty happy just to focus on the girls in the bikinis.
Molakides was once herself a rich, prissy city-slicker. Speaking with an enthusiastic railgun rhythm, she explains how she grew up a “stuck-up city girl” in a “huge mansion” in the Bay Area of San Francisco, fully expecting that she would one day run the successful beer business her father had founded. Only one day in her early twenties she woke up with a stinking hangover after a night of partying and a friend recommended she drink some ginger tea. The tea made her feel much better, which led to an intense interest in herbal remedies which led to an intense interest in organic food which in turn led to an intense interest in organic farming which, eventually, and much to her own surprise, led her to dive into the minutiae of the agricultural industry. “I bought every book and went on every course I could and taught myself about farming and commercial agriculture. And I decided that I wanted to open an organic fertiliser distribution business.”
So she did. Only, in 2012, tragedy struck when her mother died following a stroke. “My mom was this Korean born-again Christian, which is kind of out there,” she says breezily, explaining that she had spent many years buying up acres of land in the hope of one day turning them into Christian retreats. Some of this land included King’s Hill, and when it passed to Molakides she and her boyfriend at the time, a tree surgeon, realised it could be the perfect place to cultivate marijuana for supply to the medical industry. They also began to harvest the 30-acre walnut orchard, rear animals and get the ranch up and running.
When she broke up with her boyfriend in 2016, though, she decided she wanted to continue running the nicely profitable operation. But that she only wanted to do it with other women. “I just kind of wanted to live the single life and have female camaraderie. I wanted to have fun up here.” She was put in contact with friends of friends looking for a change of scene and attracted seasonal workers for whom the idea of working on an off-grid cannabis farm in northern California sounded pretty good.
Not that there isn’t the odd downside. In November, Molakides was walking her puppy one evening when a mountain lion came running from the shadows and charged them. “I screamed and grabbed my puppy, but the mountain lion got one claw in its chest and put a hole in it,” she says. “Then it ran around me and took off, and I just saw this huge tail right in front of my face.”
As a result, Molakides makes sure she is armed. “I always carry a gun on me. Because you never know.”
There are also loads of black bears, who like to creep onto the ranch and get at the walnuts. Once, Molakides counted 30 of them up in the branches of her orchard, chomping away. To discourage them, she has hit upon a nonlethal solution. “I shoot them out of the trees with a paintball gun. So they get all this paint on them and then they run away.”
There are no electrical power lines running to the ranch. It is, literally, “off-grid”, with solar panels and on-site petrol-driven electrical generators providing all the power required. As there is also no natural gas supply to the property, Molakides has propane cylinders delivered a few times a year. The water supply comes from an on-site well, which pumps the water into a 20,000 litre holding tank. She says that, when she first took over the property, she replumbed everything, installing more than 600 metres of PVC piping. It wasn’t that she yearned for the sense of freedom and self-sufficiency that can come with an off-grid life. It’s that the land she inherited was miles from anywhere and she had to make do.
“I didn’t choose the off-grid life,” she says, smiling. “It chose me.”
The fact that it is largely a women-only operation is not a political stance. “I am far from being what people would consider a feminist,” says Molakides. “I love having the man be the man and doing the man things. But I’m also a perfectionist. And guys have this machismo. They know how to do things, but they always rush and try to do everything superfast. Girls are more meticulous. We take our time.” Plus, she admits, she hates being “at the mercy” of a man: having to ask for help with tasks because she lacks the specialist expertise, which is why she is such a determined autodidact.
Anyway, she says, she started posting Instagram photos and videos of herself and the girls working the ranch and it just seemed to take off. And, taking a step back, it’s easy to see why @GirlsGoneOffGrid has the potential to amass even more followers. It ticks so many of the boxes of what people look for online. There are lots of animals, for instance, and people love to go online to look at animals. There are lots of women wearing not very much, and people love to go online to look at women not wearing very much. It is also depicting and explaining a rough, ready but ultimately aspirational lifestyle. Which, again, people like.
In fact, there is a growing number of popular American Instagram accounts showing attractive people (always attractive) living self-sufficient “off-grid” or “homestead” lives, from @offthegridwithakid (“We sold our fancy things to work and learn while travelling the world”) to @homesweethomestead, which is mainly lots of deeply tasteful photographs of pastel chicken eggs collected straight from the coop, foraged mushrooms and children in handknitted jumpers. When you’re stuck on the capitalist, corporate treadmill, what’s more compelling than peering at nice-looking strangers dropping out and going back to the land and promising us that we can do the same, even though, deep down, we know we definitely won’t? “People call me their little daily soap opera, whether it’s people with kids or who are stuck inside all day working a desk job in the city. They can just watch my Instagram story at the end of the night, and it’s an escape to a different life.”
She says that she is still single and would like to meet somebody, though this isn’t easy when you live on a remote ranch halfway up a mountain. “I’m looking for love and I want to have children,” she says firmly. “At least two.” She’s on Tinder, but has some fairly specific criteria for potential partners. “My profile says, ‘If you don’t know how to shoot a gun, change your oil, butcher an animal or drive a truck, swipe left,'” she explains, with some force. If she meets guys on Tinder, she will usually invite them to come round to the ranch and then put them through their paces with some practical, manual jobs – splitting logs or felling trees – while all the girls in bikinis silently look on. It all sounds a bit I don’t know intimidating.
“Everyone will just roll their eyes, sit back, eat popcorn and watch the guys work,” says Molakides. “They’re like, ‘God, everyone tries so hard to impress you.’ But they go hard, because it’s like their application process.”
Sometimes she’ll hand a potential suitor a chainsaw, only for him to look at her helplessly. “And that’s a big turn-off.” On the other hand, she always feels a sharp trill of excitement when she matches with a man who sounds practical. “So when they’re like, ‘I’m a contractor,’ ‘I’m a welder,’ ‘I’m a heavy equipment operator,’ those are the things that get me going and get me excited. Like, oooohhh, someone who can teach me something, y’know? I want to have a partnership with somebody. Where we can be a team.”
She is still looking. Perhaps her hunt will form part of the inevitable reality show. I would watch that. I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t. In the meantime, she hopes that people keep following the daily reality of farm life – bikinis and all – via her Instagram account. “It’s become this inspiration for people. Mostly for women,” she says, before pausing. “But not only for women.”
‘We’ll get naked,’ she says brightly. ‘We oil ourselves up and get pruning’