Shanna Whan’s 20-year alcohol addiction nearly led to her death. It also made her the ideal person to start a charity dedicated to making it okay to say no to beers in the bush. In her Hort Connections 2022 Women in Horticulture session – sponsored by Boomaroo Nurseries – the CEO and Founder of Sober in the Country discussed why alcohol is a problem in rural communities and what the industry can do about it. Sophia Auld reports.

While drinking wreaked havoc in her life, Shanna emphasises Sober in the Country is not anti-alcohol.

“We’re just pro-mates and pro-choice,” said the 2022 Australian of the Year Local Hero recipient.

“We want to see healthy, happy people who, if a problem arises, know what to do and where to go for help. We want to open up conversations around alcohol in the bush.”

Spending 20 years working in corporate ag, Shanna was a “serious red flag drinker”. A series of traumas she experienced as an 18-year-old jillaroo led to heavy binge drinking and a party-girl reputation. “I was the crazy one who did the dumb stuff. It was funny for a while, until I was getting picked up off the floor and going to emergency. Binge drinking took me to the depths of hell.

“In 2015, I was so sick my family was planning my funeral.” Her turning point came after meeting another person battling alcohol addiction. “The day I met someone else like me was the day my world changed.”

The joy of missing out

Shanna said getting sober has had numerous benefits. “Some people feel sorry for me because I can’t drink, but my life now is bloody amazing. Once I was sober, I had the greatest health, energy, and zest for life.”

While she acknowledged many people can handle a few drinks, she noted alcohol addiction is a significant problem in rural communities. At her talks, nobody has yet put up their hand when the group was asked if they didn’t know someone affected by problem drinking.

She challenged the industry to think about alcohol awareness, making four suggestions.

  1. Offer alcohol alternatives

Many events, from beers after work to corporate functions, are steeped in alcohol culture, Shanna noted. “I dream of the day there are delicious alcohol alternatives aplenty, where people like me don’t have to spear tackle waitresses when they see sparkling water with lime in it.” Consider stocking your fridge with alcohol-free alternatives and offering ‘non-drink’ tickets at events.

  1. Check in with colleagues and mates

“People doing dumb things on the grog are not OK,” she said. “We don’t play up like secondhand lawnmowers because we’re looking forward to what people will say about us. So please, take an interest in your colleagues.”

  1. Let it be okay to say no

If you only do one thing this should be it, Shanna said. “Congratulate them, celebrate that choice and go about your business.”

  1. Make use of resources

Shanna suggested exploring the resources at They also have a peer support group called the Bush Tribe, where “rural people get together, have a yarn, and help each other,” she said. “Some of these people have spent 20 years feeling isolated in their own communities. Now they’ve got mates.”

Hort Connections 2023 will be held from 5-7 June at the Adelaide Convention Centre.

Women in Horticulture at Hort Connections 2022