How many women does it take to put drought on a national stage, raise millions of dollars for bush communities and bring the city and country together? It sounds like a punch line looming, but this is no joke. Grace Brennan, Millie Fisher and Georgie Robertson are the ones grinding the gears in the background of Buy from The Bush, all from their farm kitchen tables. It’s a campaign that has changed the face of the big dry; shifting perceptions, stock and morale for countless others in the bush. Emily Herbert sits down with the three to talk dust and the power of simple action.
The 16th of October 2019 was a broiling, windless day in north west NSW. Grace Brennan was late for lunch at Millie Fisher’s, 45-kilometres north of Warren. Originally from Sydney, the two shared the experience of ‘moving bush’ for love; the bittersweetness of leaving the known behind, trading their home city’s azure shoreline for flat horizons, enormous skies and partners tied to the land.
“Grace arrived in a flap,” Millie tells me over the phone. “It was hot, so we decided to sit outside. There aren’t many women I’d sit outside with as it’s so depressing; we have an acre of backyard which is just dirt as the kangaroos have eaten all the lawn. We got talking about the drought and how it was affecting us and our families. After a few tears, Grace said she was late because she’d been drafting a letter, but she wasn’t sure who it was for. She’d listened to an interview that morning with the Prime Minister and really felt that they were missing something critical. She said she felt so helpless and wanted to do something; that she had an idea but needed some help.” The idea was remarkably simple; sharing fabulous country creatives and businesses on social media, for their city friends to buy leading up to Christmas. “I thought it was a no brainer. I said I’d help out where I could. That evening, I had an Instagram request from Buy from The Bush and thought, ‘Oh, this is happening.’ Then, it exploded.”
“I was largely motivated in telling a different story of drought,” Grace says. “There is a disconnect between the clichéd images shared by the media and the felt reality on the ground. Farmers are really proud of how they’re innovating and finding efficiencies in really tough conditions and the ‘poor thing’ or ‘bush battler’ rhetoric doesn’t really fit. There’s all sorts of hustle happening.” Grace moved to Warren a decade ago to be with her grazier husband, Jack. With three children under eight and a fourth due in April, she doesn’t do things by halves. Her background in community development is holding her in good stead to leverage the opportunities coming out of BFTB, while her long-term vision is firmly centred on making the movement sustained and sustainable. “Warren is a long way from anywhere and, as most mothers of small children will relate to, the kitchen table can often feel a long way from a boardroom table,” she told a crowd of dignitaries in Sydney when she gave the Australian Day address in January. “It is easy to feel like all the important things, the things that really matter, happen elsewhere.” Now, with more than 400,000 followers across Instagram and Facebook, it appears that things can quickly happen from right at home.
The impact of the social media campaign is frankly, astounding. Within the first six weeks, $2.6 million was generated for businesses featured on BFTB social pages. Businesses reported an average revenue increase of 660 per cent from the same period in 2018, while the BFTB website had 54,000 unique visitors in its first eight days. City dwellers and people across the country were going bananas over the gorgeous things curated from country areas; art, homewares, fashion, interiors. This wasn’t a pity party; it was a spend up based on joy and it was truly changing lives.
It was during the campaign’s first few weeks that the concept crossed the desk of Georgie Robertson. Based in Coolamon, some five hours south of Warren, she was working with a Sydney organisation looking to connect with regional makers and creators. “I got in touch with Grace who was already getting a huge amount of inquiry and at the end of the phone call I offered to help out,” Georgie says. “From there, it snow-balled.”
The founder of The Regional PR Co, Georgie deeply understands the bush. Growing up near Ivanhoe in outback NSW on a sheep and cattle station, spare time meant mustering and helping out in the yards. “It sounds idyllic and for most parts it was, but there were also years of prolonged drought and these remain an imprinted memory from my childhood. As a kid, I used to go to bed and lie there literally praying for rain. The longer it went on, the more debilitating it would get. It can be absolutely soul destroying.”
Georgie knows intimately what it takes to dig deep when things get tough. Hitting a rough patch in 2017 with her three daughters in tow, she had to grit her teeth and find a way out. “At the time it felt like sink or swim,” she says. “I was living with mum and dad; my partner Scotty was living some 800 kilometres away and I was struggling to find a ‘proper’ job as I’d been living on a fairly remote cattle property for several years and didn’t have 9 to 5 qualifications. I guess you could say it kicked me into gear to start my own business. As hard as that time was, I don’t think I would be where I am today without it.”
This is the situation thousands find themselves in across the country, as farming profits come to a grinding halt. Many are diversifying, pivoting and innovating. “I’ve seen a lot of husbands folding, packing, posting and supporting their wives in their side hustles which are now the main business,” Grace says. “So many women are in the bush because that’s where their husbands work. It’s nice to see that reversed. It’s been transformative for many businesses, as much for morale as cash flow.”
Together, the three women juggle the beast that is BFTB, working around the clock for free whilst managing households, children and work. “It has been successful because of the simplicity,” Millie says. “See a business, see a product, like it, buy it and you get this beautiful thing and give to a community. What’s not to like?” Georgie agrees. “A few months back I had an email from a Sydney editor keen to feature BFTB products and she wrote, ‘It feels like we're on the brink of something, changing people's buying habits permanently, and offering a real connection between the city and the bush.’ I loved that she said ‘we’, because even from her desk in Surry Hills, I could tell how invested she had become in the telling of the stories of these drought-affected communities.”
The women share similar routines. Each tries to beat the sun to jump on the laptop while the kids are still sleeping, working while the house is silent. Then it’s a cycle of nappies, school runs, mealtimes and work, before again turning their attention to the needs of BFTB after dinner, often until midnight. For Millie, whose husband is away searching for contracting work in Queensland, it’s all done as a single mum to her three-year-old and 2-year-old sons. It’s a long way from Paddington and her life all those years ago, when she packed up her little Corolla and drove over the Sydney bridge, tears streaming down her face as she headed for the wide-open spaces. “Simply put, the drought can be described as unfathomable stress,” she says. “There’s an underlying anxiety that flares and dissipates pending what bills come in or what contracts are withdrawn. The other side is the sense of togetherness, especially as a community. Drought doesn’t discriminate; we’re all in this together. We rally when needed. There’s kindness in bucket loads.”
“Country towns have been built on what I would call a foundation of 'doers',” Grace said in her Australia Day address. “On any given day, an Australian farmer is an amateur scientist, vet, builder or mechanic...Our local bus driver, a mother of three, is also an aged care worker and fire fighter. Farmer's wives might feed their stock or do an irrigation run in the morning and then go to work as teachers, fashion designers, agronomists, researchers, online business owners or lawyers… We are a country of people who want to help each other. What a triumph that is.”
This article was originally published in Graziher magazine, Autumn 2020