If you’ve ever pondered a change of lifestyle (perhaps on a rainy commuting Monday), there’s a thriving online community out there which can put you straight on the true pros and cons of moving to the country and living off the land.
Lifestyle Block (www.lifestyleblock.co.nz), a website created for rural landowners, is 10 years old and prides itself on delivering and sharing the sort of advice that townies who’ve decided to have a crack at The Good Life really need – especially if they plan to run their property as a business.
"You can’t just get a lifestyle block and put a couple of cattle on it and expect to make a business from that,” says the website’s owner-editor, Kate Brennan. "You can cut your living costs by living in the country; you can grow a lot of your own food and go on to selling produce, but are lot of people are unrealistic about how much work it takes.”
Brennan set up the site after swapping her IT career for a lifestyle block in the Waikato.
"My husband and I bought a block of land – we were townies, we had the idea that you buy a block of land, you put your animals on it, you look at them and think how nice they look while sipping wine on the deck. But then we realised that for example, pasture management is an art and a science, and we had to know something about fencing, about water reticulation, about weeds and pests, and there was really nowhere to get that information at that time.
"You can go to a library and get the books out, but I wanted to go on the internet and find that information, and we couldn’t do that. We knew there was a growth market in New Zealand of people buying lifestyle blocks and moving back into the country, and so it seemed to us that if we needed that information, a lot of other people would need it too.”
Brennan started her online information bank by snaring Dr Clive Dalton, a veteran agricultural researcher who was approaching retirement and – as it turned out – happy to share his knowledge. Lifestyle Block gradually built up a pool of contributors and now has a huge resource of articles covering all manner of topics from animal husbandry, fencing and equipment maintenance, to organics, legal responsibilities, and more.
The website has a thriving forum section, where people not only exchange practical information but also just discuss day-to-day living, which can be especially helpful for those still adjusting to the more isolated rural life. There’s also a blogging section, and some contributors offer regular advice on specialist subjects. Brennan herself is a blogger, under the description ‘Webgoddess, goat farmer and pylon opponent’.
The small business concerns among the lifestyle blockers range from building chicken houses, to growing gourmet fruits and vegetables, and raising pedigree beef cattle. "If you’re reasonably realistic about what your financial expectations are, then you’ll be fine,” Brennan says. But apart from raising goats, the website is her business, and it’s making a profit. She built it herself with the help of a friend who’s a graphic designer. The profits come from on-site advertising, and an e-commerce section has just been launched, selling products including books, calendars, safety glasses, T shirts and hats. Twitter and Facebook presence is being planned, along with a YouTube page of instructional videos ("When I have some free time!”).
Internet connectivity has long been a sore point for the rural sector. For the first three or four years of Lifestyle Block’s existence, Brennan was on dial-up, and the site had to be kept simple for ease of access by users with the same slow connections. Wireless and satellite broadband have made a big difference, and the site is now more graphic-intensive, although Brennan still imposes restraints on content and won’t allow flash multimedia, for example.
At the time Start-Up spoke to her, Kate Brennan was in the process of moving to a new home in Northland. More immediately, she was contemplating "going out in the rain to inject a goat!”. But this British-born townie-turned-farmer loves the life, and the way her website informs and empowers people like her.
"People want to share, and once upon a time information was a one-way thing. The internet has changed all that completely, and the people who originally came to the site to get information and experience are now pushing it back in again, and that’s brilliant – that community involvement and the real-life experiences that people go through is perfect for what we’re trying to do.”