When Covid-19 killed her tourism job, teenager Poppy Renton went home to the family farm in Maraekakaho. Realising that Hawke’s Bay farmers were struggling in the drought she set up a Facebook page that soon had thousands of members. By Rebecca Harper.

Poppy Renton had a few goals when she started the Hawke’s Bay Drought Facebook page, begrudgingly, at the request of her mum Kate.

Her initial aim was 250 members, thinking she would be amazed if she got 500, and over the moon if she could save a life. She wanted to go nationwide and get the country to come together to help each other out. All of these things she can put a tick beside.

The final goal, getting Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to acknowledge the hard work that has gone on in Hawke’s Bay, is still on the list.

Initially, Poppy wasn’t even convinced that farmers would use the page – little did she know.

The Hawke’s Bay Drought page now has 5500 members. She has been told that her actions have saved lives. She still struggles to find the words to explain how something with that much gravity makes her feel.

Poppy, 19, finished school last year and, eager to be out in the world and earning money, scored a job as a lodge assistant at Alpine Hunting Lodge, near Taihape.

“We have wild deer here on the farm and I’ve always loved hunting. Because we were in such an isolated bubble up there we had no idea how bad it (Covid-19) would be. I came home and realised how serious it was and that I’d need a new job by the end of it.”

Clients at the lodge are mostly American, and most believe it will be at least 18 months before tourists from America can come back. “Covid killed it overnight, basically. I don’t think they will have a season next year either.”

When she arrived home to the family farm – she’s the sixth generation of her family on the land in this area – she entered lockdown with her parents and sister.

“I saw Mum and Dad struggling with the drought. In lockdown the stress levels were high having three redheads in the family – it doesn’t really mix well. Your poor mum, is what everyone says.”

Kate suggested they should start a Facebook page for farmers, a place to share their concerns, ask for advice and lighten the load. Poppy was initially dismissive.

“I said don’t be stupid, farmers don’t use Facebook. She got a bit sassy with me and then went to feed the ewes. When she came back I said ‘fine, I’ve done it for you, I’ve set the page up, but no one will follow’.”

While heading out to shift some in-calf cows that afternoon her phone started going crazy – 200 people had already joined the page.

She hoped the page would be a safe platform for farmers to share advice and ask questions about getting through the drought, just like they would be able to do in person or at the pub in a non-lockdown situation.

“For example, we were feeding out palm kernel here for the first time and Dad wanted to know things like the transition time for stock, how much to feed out, what to feed out with it. The page was a place to share ideas and help each other.”

As well as those actually in Hawke’s Bay living and breathing the drought, it turned out to be a useful way for family members and farmers in other areas to show their support and stay informed about the situation. “Dad’s twin sisters are in Auckland and they got on the page because they were interested. They kept asking if it had rained, but didn’t want to ask the wrong question at such a stressful time.”

The page became a way for people to connect, offloading excess stock and sourcing feed, and feedback Poppy has received means she knows it helped some people get through.

A stock agent came on board to help with offloading stock, and the Rural Support Trust played a huge role in co-ordinating feed supplied or donated and matching it with the demand. Most recently, South Island farmers are sending 1000 bales to Hawke’s Bay and KiwiRail has donated the transport of the feed.

At the moment the lounge room at the Renton family home is littered with boxes of branded Hawke’s Bay Drought crew necks and rugby jerseys. Poppy is taking orders and distributing the clothes, with proceeds going to the Rural Support Trust.

Her aim was 100 orders and she currently has 115, with $5750 raised for the Trust.

The Hawke’s Bay Drought page has become a full-time job for Poppy, but she needs a real job – one that actually pays.

“I’ve had four job offers but they’re all shepherding roles. I want to do something in agriculture, but more in an office, like a sales or rep job.

“Farming is my passion, it’s in our blood. I love animals and I’m also a big people person. I’d love to be able to care for animals but also be around people in an office situation. That would be the best of both worlds. I would love to marry a farmer and carry on farming this land in our family, but I don’t want to be a farmer.”

With plenty of media attention, Poppy finds the response a little overwhelming.

“It’s a bit of a blur and very overwhelming. Everyone keeps saying to Mum and Dad ‘you must be so proud’. But all I did was set up a Facebook page. It was the farmers who came together to support each other.”

One thing Poppy has realised is that the rural community is like a big family and, when the chips are down, they all pull together to support one another.

“This has brought people together and given people hope and support. I can’t find the right words when people ask how it feels when you find out you have saved lives. It’s like when your tractor is stuck in the mud, you ask a mate to pull you out. When you are depressed and stuck in the mud, you can ask a mate to pull you out.

“It does give you a warm fuzzy feeling, like you have done something right. When you get overloaded by it all, you realise you are making a difference.”