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Grace Brennan - Buy from the Bush

Through a simple hashtag, a new story on the bush and its contribution to Australia’s identity has been written. The strength of the Buy from the Bush online campaign has achieved real change for rural communities in the midst of devastating drought conditions. In the first six weeks, $2.6 million in revenue was generated for featured businesses through this connection between the city and the country. The hashtag has been used 63,000 times and more than 400,000 people are engaging, following the social media pages – also potential customers to sustain our regions into the future. Buy from the Bush founder/creator Grace Brennan tells Rosie O’Keeffe her story.

Grace Brennan was sitting at the family’s kitchen table when she received a call from the NSW Premier’s office asking her to present the annual Australia Day address to the nation. “I remember there was so much chaos at home at that particular moment with my children and I actually initially asked if I could think about it,” Grace, who lives near Warren in western NSW with husband Jack, and children Eliza, 8, Maggie, 6, and Charlie, 5, chuckles. “I don’t think the gravity of it was sinking in, but I soon realised how great an opportunity it was, so I was thrilled and honoured to be asked. I am so pleased they took a chance on a ‘nobody’, having read the amazing biographies of past speakers, and to have rural life on the national agenda in a time of great celebration… Rural towns and communities are such a core part of the Australian identity, and then the devastation of the bushfires happened, giving an even greater appetite to talk about it.” Her address themed “Every One, Every Story” gave an inspiring account of the self-reliance of rural communities in solving their own problems, but how there was an underlying feeling of uncertainty and fear as the drought continued to bear down on families and businesses. She spoke about while government support through drought relief packages was constantly referred to, the conversations weren’t focusing on why all Australians should care that if farming businesses fold on mass, so do our rural communities. “I felt it was important for it to be more about sustainable support for rural communities in the long-term. It’s not about charity, it’s about investment.” She mentioned how the strength of the Buy from the Bush online community and a simple action “see it, like it, buy it” allowed people to feel more visible and valued. It engaged the community, not out of pity, but of pride, curiosity and desire. It achieved real change, and the message to strive for significant progress, not necessarily always perfection. It was in October last year that Grace Brennan created a Buy from the Bush social media page and shared it amongst her friends. She says they hit “follow”, but had laughed together, somewhat questioning the potential reach and what it would mean for rural businesses, and their community.

Then, upon hearing that Nine’s Today show team was planning a live weather cross at the local RSL club as part of its Let it Pour visits to drought-affected areas, and buoyed by a strong, can-do attitude, Grace decided it was time to take more action. “I put out a message to the women of Warren on Facebook, asking if anyone wanted to come and stand behind me while they were filming the live weather reports, and remarkably we had around 80 people turn up with Buy from the Bush shirts and cardboard banners,” Grace says. “I think people really needed to get involved in something that was productive. All of a sudden people started stalking celebrities and sharing the page with their friends. There really was an appetite for positive action, everyone was just feeling so helpless. “It was so amazing to see the energy instantly shift in Warren. “For me, the implications and effects of the drought had been so evident on a community scale, the vibe in Warren was getting more and more deflated as they realised their plight did need to be recognised nationally. Although they didn’t think they needed sympathy, I had an instinct that’s exactly what they needed and for others to have a real understanding of the human element of the suffering around the drought, rather than just images of dying livestock. “So often we also talk about the impact on the farmer in the paddock, and for me it was seeing the first casualties like contractors leaving town, small shopfronts suddenly empty, less people visiting the butcher, the hairdresser… It happens over time, but it was reaching boiling point in townships like Warren, so it really activated me to do something about it. “I think I was called to act because things were as bad as they get. As soon as the campaign took off, I recognised the need was so great and the work was justified.” It was 10 years ago that Grace moved out to western NSW after having grown up in Sydney and studying at university. She met her husband Jack at school, who went on to become a third generation farmer on his family’s property. It wasn’t long after moving to the country, she saw firsthand how stressful running a farm operation could be, with consecutive years of floods, rising debt levels and constantly being involved in physical hard work in extreme conditions. Jack’s family made the decision to sell their farm eight years ago and he has since been working in on-farm roles for Paraway Pastoral Company. “We got engaged, we got married, and then we got flooded. It was certainly a much bigger culture shift than I anticipated, and I think that anyone anticipates when they move to the bush for love. When you marry a farmer, it’s forever. It’s not going to be spending a few years on a farm and moving somewhere else. If that’s who you marry, it’s in their blood, so that’s going to be your life. “I had always had a fondness for the country, but there were subtle cultural differences and in the beginning the lack of anonymity was especially overwhelming, everyone knew everything about me before I’d even met them, and that was jarring, but it’s this friendliness and inclusiveness that is what I love about living in the country now. “It was something else I found really interesting too when I moved to the bush, that women were taking on domestic and nurturing roles they weren’t in the cities, and now I have the greatest admiration for how rural women balance both their interests and the traditional expectation of looking after their partner. “I think what is often typified in images of drought are a poor sheep, or a poor cow and a tired farmer, when what I see is so often inside the home the woman trying to keep spirits high for the farmer. She’s carrying the stress of the finances and uncertainty, while caring for children and often working her own job as well. It’s a general view, and it’s not the case in every farming household, but what a woman carries in the stress of her own business and the weight of having to keep spirits high at home and the household running is huge, and for so many, they are here because it was initially their husband’s passion and choice to live here.”

Developing Buy from the Bush has dramatically changed Grace’s life. When I speak to her, she’s just a few weeks away from giving birth to her fourth child, the family has just moved house, and this week she has a full schedule of travel to meet with large multinational organisations and deliver presentations in corporate boardrooms, she’s preparing to be involved in a fashion shoot, podcasts, and building industry collaborations. She has also still been working in the start-up she co-founded – Ag Draft – an online employment platform connecting rural businesses with workers. “The past few months have certainly been a fast learn on media performance, public speaking, strategic negotiations with partners… it’s called on every unique skill I had developed over time and it’s a funny example of a project that has called on my whole experience in my working life and my personal life. It has taken knowledge of the community and what we were going through on a personal level, but at the same time employing work experience I thought I’d shelved for a while. It’s certainly been a rewarding challenge for me,” Grace, who has also worked in various community development roles, says. “We have probably dropped the ball a little bit, making school lunches and volunteering for school canteen, but it has just been such a great opportunity to put rural communities and the drought on the national agenda and we know that any short-term challenges at home are necessary ones, knowing how worthwhile this is.” The Buy from the Bush campaign has some staggering statistics. In just the first six weeks, $2.6 million in revenue had been created for businesses featured and 25 jobs were created for rural communities. When the website was launched there were 54,000 unique visitors in just the first eight days. Being launched close to Christmas, meant shoppers were purchasing gifts for family, not just in Australia, but overseas. “The connection between strangers is striking. We’ve had baskets made in Bogan Gate, cricket bats constructed in Guyra, a ham direct from a farm at Barham, artworks from regional artists, children’s books, clothing… posted to places such as Perth, Melbourne, London, New York, and not out of pity, rather it was about joy and the precious story of their origins.” Grace believes that Buy from the Bush demonstrates a key image of rural and regional Australia with so many innovations and efficiencies already being driven in Australian agriculture. “What is emerging is incredible talent, incredible productivity, a positive energy… People are having a crack, and that’s what it was about, being able to provide for families and create a brighter future despite the weather. “Unfortunately the ‘poor thing’ narrative became more dominant over time, when there is so much good news to come out of the bush and that should be celebrated. There is a great opportunity for unique offerings in ethical shopping and meaningful consumption. This is a good story to tell and we have great brands to push, and if we can invest in these small businesses in the bush there is an enormous commercial opportunity that exists. I don’t think the city/country divide is there. In reality, city people care, they might not understand, but it’s up to our rural communities to frame the narrative and connect with the cities.” Grace didn’t anticipate how Buy from the Bush has also largely connected communities on a more local and regional level. “The mindset shift was always the big picture and thinking about what doing a little shop might actually mean for a rural community. I keep hearing from store owners saying locals are coming back in now… those people looking to source locally. That has been heartening. If people have ‘locals supporting locals’ in their minds, that’s a great outcome. “The increase in cash flow to these local businesses is flowing on to other services now also being used to undertake projects or for goods to be purchased in these districts too. “I also hear from lots of makers and creators who are excited about discovering others and I think there is power in rural businesses working together so we are looking to facilitate bigger growth in that business-to-business element across different regional areas.”

Grace believes that developing the campaign on the social media platform was paramount, as it offers a great mechanism for storytelling. “Sharing images of businesses on social media was a way of telling their story allowing engagement that wasn’t going to cost anything. If you see it, you want to buy it, then you’re connected. So many businesses we feature don’t have e-commerce capabilities, so human connection had a huge impact on isolated business owners. People would call me saying they were in tears on the phone to a customer because they wanted to buy a handbag. “I think people want to be a part of a collective and we are creating a community. “It wasn’t a conscious motivation, but it was at the core of the idea, that 96 per cent of the businesses featured on Buy from the Bush are women. In my mind that is an incredible reflection of what can happen when women are empowered to establish businesses and engage with others.”

With such a growth in Buy from the Bush in a short period of time, Grace now works alongside Millie Fisher and Georgie Robertson, who engage with local businesses, arrange markets, and coordinate public relations and media opportunities. “We’re in the phase of consolidation and getting some strategic partners on board, building a team sustainable enough to grow it, and really investigating the best ways of doing that. There’s enormous opportunities for the bush to be marketed as super appealing globally as well.” It’s early in autumn and rain has fallen in the area bringing some positivity, but with just 2.5 inches falling in total in the past three to four years, depleting stock numbers, no crops and no break, it’s been a psychological battle for farmers, and Grace senses a bigger challenge to overcome. “We hope that this rain brings a new fortune, but now we have both people in these farming and household partnerships working so hard… There are so many new decisions to make around investments, whether to spray, whether to buy stock when the market is peaking… Someone said to me the other day, ‘it’s like Santa has turned up, but his sack is empty’, it’s not over, but it’s certainly an opportunity. “And, for now, we’ll be positive.”

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