Taking the farm to Instagram: How four women farmers are connecting through social media

Sheep farmer and YouTube star Sandi Brock visits with a lamb on her farm near Staffa, Ont.Geoff Robins/The Globe and Mail

Scrolling through @thetulepps Instagram account, the two women artfully posed in elegant outfits probably don’t look anything like the picture that pops into your head when you hear the word “farmer.”

That’s exactly why sisters Cassandra and Stephanie Lepp, fourth-generation grain farmers near Rivers, Man., launched @thetulepps, where the pair can be seen looking equally at home running heavy farm machinery, modeling Canadian-made clothing and goofing around with their dogs .

“When we worked for our dad’s manufacturing company, which makes grain-handling equipment, we were the sales team, and when we’d go to trade shows, some people wouldn’t talk to us,” says Cassandra. “They wanted to talk to our dad, or another man in the booth.”

“We started [@thetulepps] not only to share that women can farm and sell farm equipment, but we wanted to talk to a broader audience, too, not just farmers,” Stephanie adds. “That’s why we incorporated fashion. Because there’s a lot of misconceptions about farming in the media.”

The Lepps say they want to show farming in a different, more positive light, not by proselytizing or lecturing, but simply by giving their followers a glimpse into their day-to-day lives. In the process, they hope to communicate a message.

“We really do care about looking after the land,” Stephanie says.

Sharing perspectives and struggles

As extreme weather and pandemic-related disruptions have put the country’s food supply chain in the spotlight, more Canadians have become curious about where our groceries come from. And while the average Canadian farmer is male and over 50, a new generation of women farmers are using social media to lift the curtain about what modern agriculture looks like.

Lesley Kelly, who operates Evergreen Wood Creek Farms near Watrous, Sask., with her family, says she started her blog, High Heels & Canola Fields, to help dispel myths about how crops such as canola, wheat, barley, oats and lentils are produced. She says she was initially inspired by an encounter with a woman who equated conventionally-raised crops with poison, and the blog has since enabled her to share her perspective.

“I talk about some of our farming practices, like sequestering carbon and using no-till [farming]and the advancements in genetics that are quite good for both the farm and what it means at the grocery store level,” she says.

Ms. Kelly and her husband also reveal some very personal stories through the blog, in the hopes of helping others. When a fellow farmer died of suicide and the Kellys couldn’t find any mental health resources tailored for people in the agricultural community, they made the potentially vulnerable decision to record a video sharing their own struggles with anxiety and postpartum blues.

While the couple had feared their candor might affect everything from their bank loan to their insurance, none of those outcomes materialized. Instead, they gained new followers and received an outpouring of gratitude from around the world. (Ms. Kelly went on to co-found a non-profit focused on mental health in agriculture across Canada.)

That kind of openness has fostered conversations that have taught Ms. Kelly valuable lessons.

“I’m here to learn what’s important to [consumers], and hearing what’s important has really changed my approach,” she says. “Getting to understand people – that connection part is what I love.”

Cassandra (left) and Stephanie Lepp, at their farm near Rivers, Man., combine fashion and farming on Instagram.Rheanon Neale

‘To connect at a human level’

Sheep farmer Sandi Brock first started vlogging about farming purely for enjoyment.

“My kids showed me how to use Snapchat to make these things called stories, and they were just so much fun,” says Ms. Brock, who, with her husband Mark, operates Shepherd Creek Farms near Staffa, Ont. “All I did was video my day in the sheep barn and the funny things they do.”

However, as her audience grew, and multiple people began asking the same questions, Ms. Brock decided that a more permanent collection of longer-form recordings, housed on YouTube, would be the best solution.

“Then you could just send them a link to the video that would answer those questions,” she says. “[But] it took me about a year to get the courage to [establish a channel] because then you’re really out there.”

In 2017, Ms. Brock launched Sheepishly Me, posting roughly three videos per week (more during lambing season), and spending roughly ten hours apiece on editing.

“I really just wanted you to get to know who we are as people – to connect at a human level,” Ms. Brock says. “I wanted to grab people by the hand and let them be part of every moment. My through line is to create empathy.”

Clearly, she struck a chord, garnering millions of views and more than 570,000 subscribers to date.

“Somehow – because I haven’t meant to do it – I’ve created a safe place where people feel like I’m their friend and they can share because I’ve been very vulnerable and open and honest,” Ms. Brock says. “I talk about the crappy stuff, no matter whether it’s grief because I lost a good friend or it’s farming and the failures that come with that. I just talk about it so people can relate, or not feel so alone. I’m grateful for the community that I’ve been able to build.”

A profitable side business

Beyond connecting with audiences and educating about farming, digital content has also become an integral part of the business for some Canadian farmers.

Ms. Brock’s YouTube channel is bringing in ad revenue and her digital presence has helped diversify her revenue stream in other ways, too. She sells branded merchandise on her website and has turned what was once a waste product – wool sheared from her flock periodically to prevent overheating and matting – into boutique yarn and felting kits that sell out in minutes.

“I found a wonderful little wool mill just outside of Lindsay [Ont.],” Ms. Brock says. “We’ve collaborated, and we’ve had three launches so far.”

Ms. Kelly sells “farming and mental health swag,” such as t-shirts and and toques emblazoned with canola flowers on her website. And the Lepps have a side gig partnering with brands they respect (they say they hope their following will be an advantage when they launch their new venture: a farm equipment manufacturing business).

Yet it’s not the financial rewards that keep these farmers engaging with their online audiences. The Lepps, for example, want girls to grow up seeing women farmers as the norm.

“A lot of women didn’t have that, and now maybe they do,” says Cassandra, “because people like us are telling their stories.”

For her part, Ms. Kelly says she hopes her children will continue her legacy of showing people what happens on farms. “If they can see the importance of being able to share what they do, then it’ll be worth it.”

Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on the hub hereand subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback on the series? Email us at GWC@globeandmail.com.

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