To some, fashion and farming may seem at the opposite ends of the spectrum. For one pair of farming sisters, the two work hand in hand.
Cassandra and Stefanie Lepp farm together near Rivers, Manitoba. They use a mix of fashion photography and gritty farm shots to paint a picture of their life, and to speak out on Instagram about aspects of agriculture and rural living.
“We wanted to be a positive voice for agriculture,” Cassandra said. “There’s a lot of fearmongering in the food world, and farmers get a bad rap.”
Why fashion? Because it gave them a wider platform.
“When we have something to say, we don’t want to say it to people who already know that message,” Cassandra said.
Sink or swim
As young girls, Cassandra and Stefanie’s roles on the farm were mostly limited to field suppers with their father. Dad John Lepp was farming with his brother while starting Springland Manufacturing, a grain-handling machinery company.
Both women went to university with a mind to join the family business. Stefanie studied web and graphic design and Cassandra got a degree in business.
Meanwhile, they’d also begun working on the farm part time and as their comfort on the farm increased, so did their discomfort at their desk jobs.
“I just didn’t like working on a computer all day and I liked farming better,” said Stefanie.
So, while both women stayed involved with the family business, they decided to focus on farming. Today, they manage the family grain and oilseed operation together. Their dad helps and advises, but has begun to pull back.
The learning curve was steep and sometimes terrifying. Cassandra recalled her dad’s sink-or-swim approach to training her during seeding.
“He just started throwing me in the drill and like letting me do it,” she said. “It was pretty scary, I would say, but over the years I just got more and more comfortable.”
The mechanical side was hard, and selling their grain was hard, but with their dad’s help and the aid of a dedicated agronomist, they got it done.
“You can see what you’re doing,” Cassandra said. “When you finish a field, it just feels good.”
Fashion as a voice
“We had requests to start a blog about all the farm stuff we do that would hopefully inspire other ladies to get out there and work in a typically man-dominated field,” Cassandra and Stefanie wrote in their first Instagram post together — May 2018. “We also want to educate and promote agriculture in a positive way. Sooo here it goes!”
Less than two years later, “The Tulepps” (that’s their Instagram handle) have about 13,600 followers from around the world. Intermingled with magazine-worthy fashion shots (Stefanie is a skilled photographer) are pictures of them at work on the farm — posing on top of a load of canola, washing down the combine.
Cassandra and Stefanie told the Co-operator they’re often inspired by whatever their task is that day and take photos by propping up their smartphones on whatever is available.
They’ve got messages and emails from folks all over the world — some who’ve said they knew nothing about agriculture until they’d read their Instagram posts.
Some of their best engagement has come from posts about mental health.
“Making it OK to talk about is important to us,” said Cassandra, who has dealt with anxiety. She cited stats that say farmers have higher depression and anxiety rates than the general population.
“Mental health problems are often invisible to the outside world and those closest to you may not even know you’re struggling,” they wrote in a Jan. 30 post. “We are here to tell you it’s OK to ask for help and it’s OK to not be OK.”
They’ve also tackled controversy over chemicals — and how little of what comes from the boom is actually chemicals.
“People really got heated about it,” Cassandra said.
They’re not huge advocates for chemical use, she said, but right now that’s what it takes to grow the crops they do.
“We’re not trying to hurt the environment. We’re trying to feed the world,” Cassandra said.
Their Instagram platform also lets them talk about something they were taught since girlhood.
“We were brought up in a way that… there wasn’t anything we couldn’t do,” Stefanie said. “I guess it’s normal for us for women to be involved in whatever field they want to be. Our dad has never made it seem like he wanted boys instead of girls. He’s always just told us we can do whatever.”
The sisters wanted to inspire women to farm — clearly it could be done, since they were doing it.
Yes, they make no bones about it being hard — not on Instagram, nor in an interview. Last year was extremely tough. They struggled against weather and being understaffed. Sometimes they’re physically not strong enough to do a task, or a mechanical problem stumps them.
And that’s fine, Cassandra said.
“You’re not going to know everything,” she said. “Surround yourself with people who know what you don’t know, and you will bring your own strengths to it.”
“There are no limits if you work hard enough,” Stefanie added. “You really just have to jump into it and start running equipment or whatever it is. Just start learning.”