A social media champion emerges for young farming mothers

Chanelle with children Hunter and Isabelle. Living in the country with young children goes hand in hand with isolation.
John Bisset

Chanelle with children Hunter and Isabelle. Living in the country with young children goes hand in hand with isolation.

Young mothers living in the rural backblocks have a new champion.

Twenty-six-year-old mother-of-two and wife of a deer farmer, Chanelle O'Sullivan, saw a need for a support mechanism for young mums, often from an urban background, who found themselves ensconced in the countryside because of their husband or partners' jobs. 

"These girls are often isolated and unsupported," O'Sullivan says. "I wanted to create a means for them to interact, hence I took over the  Farming Mums NZ Facebook page three years ago. I thought it was a worthwhile resource for women who could otherwise feel isolated in the country." 

O'Sullivan's  involvement came about after the page was established  by a North Islander in 2013. The page grew to 600 members before O'Sullivan took over and  changed it to a closed group to provide for more privacy and an interactive forum. Today, 6000 members log onto the page - a membership that has doubled in the last year. It grows by 30-40 members each week, O'Sullivan says. The issues posted are wide-ranging and eclectic - from children's nits to wedding dress designs; recipes to employment contracts.  

"The range shows there is a real need for networking and community involvement in the sector. Sixty per cent of members are dairy farm based and 40 per cent sheep and beef and other, such as beekeeping lifestyles, goat milking etc," she says. "Waikato and Canterbury mums feature the most with ages ranging from 17 to 70 but the most active being the 25-35-year-olds."

O'Sullivan lives at Raincliff Station, near Geraldine, with her husband David, who is a stock manager on a 3000-head deer property. The couple has two small children. Prior to motherhood O'Sullivan worked on a sheep station in the Mackenzie Country, and on a dairy farm near Fairlie - this after graduating with a Certificate of Agriculture from Waikato University. She also worked as a vet nurse in Geraldine while studying a vet nursing qualification.

These days, apart from raising her two children, O'Sullivan keeps the farm's velveting records and manages the facebook page. The page has become "an all-encompassing beast that demands lots of unpaid time," she says.

"It's a big job vetting every post to make sure the mood is supportive and helpful. I found three older and more experienced women to help me moderate the posts -  I basically begged them to help.

"We found that two degrees of separation barely exists in the farming world so we try to keep privacy as high a priority as possible. We don't put up any employer-employee specific conflict and try not be a healthline as we don't want to misdiagnose.

"We aim for a supportive non-judgmental environment for farming women to chat, ask questions, share photos and perhaps find others nearby in similar situations."

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There have been harrowing times supporting people through crisis, O'Sullivan says. A woman who lost her husband while hunting received 450 messages of support and a Give-a-Little page. There have also been offers of cash, rides into town, and cash donations, 

"There have also been many good stories and many more we don't put up due to their sensitivity. Between the four of us (moderators) we have different perspectives on what to suggest the member might do outside the page to get help," she says. 

Guidelines have been developed on what should and shouldn't be displayed.

"While some conversations reach a whole new level of craziness, for many farm mums the page helps to keep things stable and means they can take their network with them when they inevitably move on to another place."

A Farming Mums conference is on the radar; O'Sullivan has already been approached by a potential sponsor. Upsized regional gatherings, grown out of coffee meets, are already happening. O'Sulllivan has also set up an FM Classifieds group for farming women to find and offer jobs and buy and sell products they have made or want to trade. The group has more than 1000 members.

All this is a huge and time-consuming tie for O'Sullivan, but the social media experience has opened up other opportunities for her. She sees it as not only a way to keep in touch with rural issues through Facebook and Twitter, but a possible means for carving out a paid position for herself using her new skills.

Last year she set up a Next Generation Deer Farmers group on Facebook as a forum for young deer farmers to chat and engage in current issues. The page now has 60-70 members who ask deer farming feeding and industry questions. She has also promised herself she will learn to tweet more as @justafarmerwife because she thinks the Twitter medium is a good platform for keeping up to date on industry news and issues.

"I'm not very good at using it but I like to keep and eye on it and have a theory that men are more likely to engage in the shorter format of Twitter."

"Basically, I'm  harnessing my youth and interest in social media for social good," she says.  

 - Stuff.co.nz

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