ON­LINE DOWN THE LINE

FROM TWO SPRAWL­ING HIGH­COUN­TRY STA­TIONS ON EI­THER SIDE OF THE WAIT­AKI RIVER, TWO YOUNG AND CRE­ATIVE RU­RAL LADIES ARE EM­POW­ER­ING AND CON­NECT­ING LIKE- MINDED WOMEN

NZ Life & Leisure - - Con­tents - WORD SC HERE E MOR­RI­SON PHO­TO­GRAPHS RA CHA EL HAL EM C KEN NA

They grew up in the city and forged glam­ourous ca­reers. Now these two young women are rein­vent­ing them­selves on their farms

A NET­WORK OF crossed paths led Sarah Dou­glas and Bex Hay­man to farms with un­reach­able hori­zons, and to each other. De­spite grow­ing up at op­po­site ends of the coun­try and with dif­fer­ent ca­reers – one with a mi­cro­phone in hand, the other with colour swatches and in­te­ri­ors mag­a­zines tucked un­der an arm – they found them­selves trip­ping over one an­other in the most un­ex­pected of places. In­tro­duced as friends of friends at a univer­sity party in Auck­land, they went on to spot each other across a crowded Lon­don street and later bonded as ru­ral women learn­ing the ropes in Kurow. It’s a pre­de­ter­mined friend­ship that could have been writ­ten in the stars.

Rein­vent­ing them­selves as young ru­ral ladies was never on the cards for ei­ther Bex (nee Mur­ray) or Sarah (nee Con­nell). But when both fell in love with farm­ers dis­guised as bankers – dressed in busi­ness suits but with Stub­bies in their heart – the back blocks be­gan to look rather ap­peal­ing. Both had ca­reers that al­lowed them to wan­der past the city lim­its; Bex as a coun­try/pop singer who re­leased an al­bum ( Heart That Talks) and opened for Cree­dence Clear­wa­ter Re­vival, the Hol­lies and Bon­nie Tyler, and Sarah as an in­te­rior dec­o­ra­tor and magazine de­signer.

So when their soon-to-be hus­bands pro­posed not only a life to­gether but also a life on the farm, they packed their bags, their lap­tops and their Red Bands and started life “just down the road from each other” (only in the South Is­land is 100 kilo­me­tres con­sid­ered such).

Be­tween gigs for Bex and dec­o­rat­ing jobs for Sarah, both took to coun­try life with gusto – train­ing dogs, cre­at­ing and grow­ing gar­dens, host­ing par­ties and hon­ing their cook­ing skills so that less ended up as feed for the chooks. What didn’t come nat­u­rally was learnt through hard work – and it was this tire­less cre­ative en­ergy that brought Bex and Sarah to­gether to launch a busi­ness.

Their Face­book page Young Ru­ral Ladies, cre­ated in win­ter 2015 as a place to trade recipes, farm­ing sto­ries and share DIY projects, grew quickly. The au­di­ence? Women through­out New Zealand on farms large and lit­tle. Some in small towns where the main street is Main Street, oth­ers hours from the near­est off-kil­ter road sign. Some born and bred in their re­gion and oth­ers, like Bex and Sarah, who’ve moved from larger towns for love and the land. All ex­pe­ri­ence iso­la­tion, whether it’s mea­sured in dis­tance or in find­ing their feet in an un­fa­mil­iar new world.

“The Face­book page en­cour­ages other women to share their lives. It’s fun, in­spi­ra­tional and show­cases women mak­ing the most of ru­ral life. We don’t try to be pro­fes­sional blog­gers; we want it to be re­fresh­ing and easy to re­late to.”

The duo has stum­bled upon a new gen­er­a­tion of ru­ral women. The mul­ti­ple hats worn by farm­ing women have al­ways, and do still, bend the stur­di­est of hat stands – chef, child-min­der, an­i­mal wran­gler, man­ager, builder, ac­coun­tant, gar­dener… a ru­ral woman’s CV runs longer than her fort­nightly shop­ping list. How­ever, the typ­i­cal “farmer’s wife” is an out­dated stereo­type. Their help­ing hands are as busy as ever, build­ing busi­nesses and in­come from home of­fices, gum­boots left at the door.

“We dis­cov­ered so many amaz­ing peo­ple cre­at­ing busi­nesses from their farms and started pro­mot­ing them on the Face­book page to sup­port them,” says Sarah.

“It formed the idea for The Mar­ket­place, a re­cently launched on­line store (youn­gru­ral­adies.com) that stocks the prod­ucts made on farms all over the coun­try. Ev­ery­one wins. The au­di­ence loves it as they are buy­ing from like-minded women. We’ve cre­ated some­thing for our­selves and it also helps sup­port small busi­nesses.”

Bex agrees. “We love the re­sponse – it’s over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive. Young Ru­ral Ladies reaches peo­ple in iso­lated ar­eas and it just makes peo­ple feel good.”

The on­line store has also given both women an op­por­tu­nity to flex their cre­ative tal­ents. The Mar­ket­place stocks Whis­tle and Pop, a lim­ited range of jew­ellery de­signed by Bex and crafted by a lo­cal ar­ti­san. The main piece, a dog whis­tle on a chain, was in­spired by an 18th birth­day gift and is what hus­band Tom re­ceived in­stead of a wed­ding ring – per­haps the only time the phrase “with this whis­tle, I thee wed” has been ut­tered in the Church of the Good Shep­herd.

As for Sarah, the hours she has spent prac­tis­ing at the pot­tery wheel won’t be in vain – she has plans to cre­ate a pot­tery line. To be called Frankie Ceram­ics, it will be an ex­ten­sion of a love of home wares that blos­somed dur­ing her days as a graphic de­signer at NZ House & Gar­den.

“We could ex­pand and get more peo­ple in­volved but for now, we want our busi­ness to work for us,” she says. “When we have fam­i­lies, one will take up the reins, then vice versa. The Mar­ket­place launched in De­cem­ber so it’s early days but we love it – ev­ery or­der is ex­cit­ing. When you buy from a small busi­ness like ours, just know that some­one out there is do­ing a happy dance.”

As Bex’s first child ar­rived in Jan­uary, it’s cur­rently Sarah danc­ing around the of­fice for the both of them. Hus­band Dougie (ac­tual name Ben) just laughs. The pair was in­tro­duced in Dunedin while Sarah was on a week­end’s hol­i­day from Auck­land. It wasn’t long be­fore Dougie joined her in the big smoke, work­ing in cor­po­rate anal­y­sis bank­ing while Sarah nour­ished her love of in­te­ri­ors at NZ House & Gar­den. Three years in Lon­don fol­lowed, where Sarah stud­ied in­te­rior de­sign and worked on lux­ury mag­a­zines. Then one day, the gloss of Lon­don faded. Friends started mov­ing home, jobs lost their lus­tre and an idea started to form.

Sarah and Dougie moved to Dome Hills in 2014 for a 12-month trial pe­riod. It’s on­go­ing. They’ve set­tled into a home just a few hun­dred me­tres from Dougie’s par­ents that was built for his grand­par­ents be­fore be­ing used as a lodge.

Both have had to ad­just to farm life; Dougie works on the sta­tion along­side his fa­ther and is still mas­ter­ing the clas­sic farmer skill of pin­point­ing ex­actly where to stop the ute when open­ing farm gates, while Sarah pitches in be­tween in­te­rior de­sign com­mis­sions and her on­line work.

Dome Hills is a mix of sheep, cat­tle and crops. Friends come of­ten and hap­pily, bring­ing with them a fresh en­thu­si­asm for ru­ral life. The role of the host­ess is one Sarah em­braces – lov­ing ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to style a beau­ti­ful ta­ble. “We en­ter­tain now more than ever – when peo­ple come over it’s all up to us.”

She means it – a re­cent din­ner party for 18 in­spired her to cre­ate her own din­ner set – which barely sur­vived Dougie’s driv­ing on the way home from the kiln. On hear­ing what sounded like break­ing pot­tery af­ter a par­tic­u­larly en­thu­si­as­tic cor­ner, he thought their mar­riage might also be in pieces. Luck­ily dis­as­ter was avoided not only for the plates, but also for Dougie, who ad­mits that re­turn­ing to run Dome Hills Sta­tion wouldn’t have been on the cards with­out his part­ner-in-crime.

“Re­turn­ing to the farm wasn’t in our long-term plan, def­i­nitely not. But we love it and do­ing this with Sarah makes it so much bet­ter – she’s a girl from Auck­land, but I truly need her here.”

THIS PAGE: Wran­gling seven dogs is gen­er­ally ut­ter chaos, says Sarah (with hus­band Dougie). Herd­ing cats would per­haps be an eas­ier task. All the dogs but one earn their din­ner by work­ing but are mainly treated like pets and love their morn­ing strolls (or runs, rolls and chases), although the views over Dansey’s Pass are wasted on them. The ex­cep­tion – Frankie ( bark­ing) – is pure pet; while the out­look is wor­thy of a paint­ing, this spot is barely mid­way up the farm – Dome Hills stretches for kilo­me­tres fur­ther into the val­ley.

The black sheep are favourites of Cindy and Sarah’s. The ewes (in­clud­ing Michelle Obahh- ma, above) are bril­liant lam­bers, and cur­rently wear­ing coats that are to be­come hand­spun, all- nat­u­ral black tar­tan crafted by lo­cal ar­ti­sans McLean & Co. Hope­fully the fab­ric will be for sale on The Mar­ket­place un­der the name Black Yarns later this year.

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