A WIMMERA farmer has taken social media by storm, all while raising awareness for rural mental health.
An Instagram page, which started as a joke for St Helens Plains farmer Ben Brooksby, has skyrocketed and now attracts followers from throughout the world.
Mr Brooksby started The Naked Farmer Instagram page in May, but he said the idea first came about during harvest in 2016.
He was stripping lentils at the time when a friend Emma Cross visited the farm to take photos of harvest in action.
Ms Cross, who grew up in Horsham, runs her own photography business Emma Jane Industry.
“The truck was almost full of lentils, so we climbed up on top of it to grab some photos,” Mr Brooksby said.
Being creative, Ms Cross told Mr Brooksby to jump into the truck.
“Then she asked me to take my kit off,” he said.
“At first I said ‘are you kidding me?’ – but I also did as I was told.”
Ms Cross snapped a photo of Mr Brooksby naked in the lentils.
Little did the pair know at the time, but the photo would start a viral campaign.
Mr Brooksby posted the photo on his personal Instagram page and it got a few laughs from his mates.
That was that for the time being, but soon the photo popped back into Mr Brooksby’s mind.
“On May 13, I was planting those same lentils back in the ground and I started thinking about that photo,” he said.
“I wondered if anyone had the Instagram page ‘The Naked Farmer’ and when I saw it didn’t exist already, I decided to make it while it was still available.
“I put a photo up and within seven days I had more than 1000 followers and heaps of people sending photos in.
“It just skyrocketed.”
The Naked Farmer page now has more than 33,000 followers on Instagram.
It has also grown to include a Facebook page and website, along with Snapchat and Twitter accounts.
Mr Brooksby said he was blown away by the response.
“I definitely didn’t expect it to go off like that,” he said.
“I thought a few people would get a good laugh out of it, but that would be it.
“I actually didn’t want to tell my mates or my family that I had started this page at first, so I kept it a secret for months.”
Once the page had 10,000 followers, Mr Brooksby told Ms Cross about what he had done.
“We then organised a photo shoot of Wimmera people so we could put some really good quality photos on the page,” he said.
“We wanted to show people the kinds of photos we wanted them to send in."
It wasn’t long before Mr Brooksby decided to use the power of The Naked Farmer to drive a campaign about mental health issues in rural areas.
“I decided that I had this tool at my fingertips, I might as well use it for good,” he said.
“I love to help people and I thought this might be a good way to educate others about mental health issues.”
Mr Brooksby said opening up and talking about mental health was a lot like getting naked.
“No one likes to strip off – it’s awkward and we aren’t confident, just like no one likes to talk about their feelings,” he said.
“The photos are also a good way to make people laugh and open up.”
Mr Brooksby said mental illness was a huge problem in the agricultural industry and it was something that people didn’t talk about enough.
“The suicide rate is 1.6 times higher than any other industry – we need to talk about this issue,” he said.
“Getting people to laugh and smile from the images we post each day might only be a small way to spread joy in the industry, but it is our little bit.
“We know its tough to talk about but we all need to learn that it is okay to not be okay and that we should all talk to one another about our issues and stress.
“Plus, it’s a good conversation starter to talk to someone about the photo they took.
“It’s brilliant and I absolutely love being part of The Naked Farmer.”
As part of the campaign, The Naked Farmer photos were used in a 2018 calendar.
Ms Cross used her photos of Wimmera people baring all for the calendar, and all money raised from the sales went to the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
“We are trying to raise as much awareness as we can,” Mr Brooksby said.
However, the calendars were in high demand and it didn’t take long for them to sell out.
Mr Brooksby said works were now in place to create a 2019 calendar.
“In June or July this year I plan to tour around Australia and meet followers of the page,” he said.
“We want to try to talk to as many people involved in agriculture as possible and interview them and take some photos.
“The plan is to make a male and a female calendar for 2019 using photos from the tour.”
Mr Brooksby said the 2018 calendar raised a good amount for the charity.
“I haven’t had a chance to tally it up yet with harvest and holidays,” he said.
As The Naked Farmers’ reach continues to grow, Mr Brooksby hopes to continue building on the project and reduce the stigma associated with mental health.
“In the future, we have a few things happening behind the scenes that we are working on, which will all be based on mental illness and raising money and awareness,” he said.
“Things have just fallen into place so far and the project had found its own direction.
“I am also looking forward to meeting followers of the page.”
Mr Brooksby also hopes to use the page to teach people more about farming.
“For a long time, there has been a growing disconnect between the people growing our food and fibre to the end consumer,” he said.
“I want to shorten that gap by using social media as a platform.”
The Naked Farmer has attracted interest from all over the world, with people sending in photos from countries such as Germany, USA, New Zealand and Indonesia.
“Most of the photos are from Australia though,” Mr Brooksby said.
“I get a lot of messages from people overseas saying they wished their country was as laid back as ours is.”