A chat with…Melissa Connors, Rural Women’s Award Victorian Finalist

Melissa Connors, one of three Victorian finalists for the 2018 AgriFutures™ Rural Women’s Award

Meet Melissa Connors, one of three Victorian finalists for the 2018 AgriFutures™ Rural Women’s Award.

This award spotlights the crucial role women play in Victoria’s rural and regional industries – including our $13.1 billion agriculture sector. The Victorian winner, to be announced 20 March*, will receive $10,000 to implement their project vision. Each state and territory winner will have the opportunity to attend the Australian Institute of Company Directors course before September’s national award ceremony in Canberra.

Back in 2012, inner-Melbourne city slicker Melissa Connors, her husband and four kids decided to embrace a tree change. So, they bought a 10-acre hobby farm at Kyneton in Victoria’s Macedon Ranges. Soon, however, they realised the monumental challenge ahead of them, as their lack of farming expertise became apparent in terms of cattle and water management.

Melissa Connors sits outside smiling at the cameraA chance meeting with retired farmer Noel Jenner helped change all that: the pair have become firm friends and Jenner has been a huge source of farming wisdom for Connors and her family. But on a bigger level, Connors realised there was a huge opportunity for retired farmers to offer their farming expertise to younger “tree change” generations.

With that in mind, in June 2015, with the help of a $1000 grant from the Macedon Ranges Shire Council Community Funding Scheme, Connors’ project, 'This Farm Needs A Farmer' was born. Its mission is to build stronger, more engaged communities by connecting tree changers with established and retired farmers who can pass on their invaluable local knowledge to newcomers.

How did you hear about the Awards?

On my Facebook feed … on the day the applications closed! But I decided I really wanted to give it a shot, so I locked myself in my office for the afternoon and gave it a red hot go. I really wanted to apply, not only for myself and the project, but to be part of something I truly believed in and to set an example to my kids of giving things a go.

In what way has becoming one of three finalists helped your work?

The exposure helps increase community reach. It also helps build trust to win over the older farming generation.

How did ‘This Farm Needs A Farmer’ come about?

I’d watched an old farmer walk past our farm gate twice a day for three years. We got talking and I said, “You’re so dedicated to your walks – I watch you pass here every day” to which he responded, “I’m off the land now, what else do I do with my time?” Lightbulb!

Why was that a lightbulb moment?

Here was my family not knowing how to go about looking after our 10 acres and what we could do with it – and here was Noel (we’re now great friends) going for walks each day because he had nothing else to do with his time. All that precious knowledge stored in his head walking around, and we needed it. It got me thinking about how many other retired farmers are just like Noel and how many other tree changers like my family need this knowledge – that comment planted a tiny seed of an idea that created ‘This Farm Needs A Farmer’. It’s continually resonating through the Macedon Ranges and beyond.

And when was that?

My conversation with Noel was in January 2015. I received a $1000 grant through the Macedon Ranges Shire Council Community Funding Scheme in June 2015 and that’s when the project was officially founded.

Tell us more about inter-generational farming knowledge sharing.

The hand-me-down knowledge that used to exist between families is being lost. Many farming children are moving away from the land that their parents worked, and farming properties are being divided into smaller lots. These smaller properties (as well as large ones) are being bought by tree changer families who are moving away from the city for a simpler life, going back-to-basics and living off the land. However, the rose-coloured glasses soon fall off as the realisation hits that the task at hand is quite massive and the starting line can’t even be found.

Major challenges in bringing ‘This Farm Needs A Farmer’ to fruition?

Earning my stripes and earning the trust of the older farming generation – an ongoing process. The older generation, refreshingly, don’t ‘self-promote’ and even though their achievements have built the foundation that we have the good fortune to live on today, they’re always telling me, “We just did it”. It can be a challenge for the older generation to see that they have so much to offer us very ‘green’ tree changers.

How has the program struck a chord?

Part of the success of ‘This Farm Needs A Farmer’ is that I share my family’s tree change story in all its ‘mistake-filled glory’. We jumped in boots and all, blinkered by  romantic notions of what our life was going to look like. Then reality hit us hard and we had a steep learning curve that we had unknowingly undertaken.

Many times, tree changers come up to me and say that the same things have happened to them but they’ve been too embarrassed to tell anyone. That’s when I reassure them that they’re not alone and tell them the project can support them on their property. I see ‘This Farm Needs A Farmer’ as the safety net my family could’ve used when we first moved to the region.

Examples of the project’s success?

Reach and community support are growing more rapidly as each month passes. The project now receives calls from not only tree changers that have made the move, but tree changers who have been here for a while and are sick of the trial and error as well as tree changers who are thinking of making the move – local real estate agents are passing on the project details to potential buyers to help them make their decisions about moving to the area. And on March 18, the project will be holding its inaugural Field Day at the Kyneton Showgrounds.

What further ideas are in the pipeline to promote inter-generational collaboration within the farming community?

On-farm workshops will be rolled out across the region this year. The best way for our tree changers to learn the skills they need to manage their properties or begin agribusiness ventures is via ‘hands-on’ learning. The project’s mission is to connect people with people – along the way, paper has taken the place of a person-to-person interaction, but you can’t ask a piece of paper a question.

What is the focus of the workshop?

Basic skills will be taught in a non-judgmental setting to enable thorough learning and understanding – as anyone on a rural property knows, if it’s going to go wrong it’ll be on a Sunday night in winter when no one’s available to fix it! There are skills every property owner needs to know to get themselves out of trouble until expert help can arrive.

Your advice to other rural women looking to have a say in farming communities?

Speak up, even if it’s a whisper, and get involved. About 80 per cent of rural properties are occupied by women and children, while their partners are commuting and working outside the region. You’re stronger than you think and capable of anything with the right tools, advice, support and a willingness to get your hands dirty.

How do you connect with other women in the farming community?

When I moved to Kyneton, I moved with the conscious thought to say “yes” more, to quietly navigate my way within my new home town and to find my way to contribute to a community that has given me so much. Once you start looking and put your hand up, you’ll be amazed at the groups available to be involved in around your region. I’m incredibly humbled and privileged to be part of a community that supports its members having a go and I see my project as a way to say thank you.

Advice for women thinking of applying for a Rural Women’s Award?

Go for it! Even if you don’t become a finalist, it will give clarity and direction to your idea – that investment of time is never wasted.

Find out more about the AgriFutures™ Rural Women’s Award.

In addition to the Victorian AgriFutures™ Rural Women’s Award, the Victorian Government also supports other initiatives that empower and support rural and regional women. The Rural Women’s Network is supporting rural women to have a more active voice in government and community decision-making. Also, The Invisible Farmer project offers Victorian women in agriculture the chance to share their inspirational stories.

*Update: 20 March 2018

On 20 March 2018, the Minister for Agriculture awarded Melissa Connors the prestigious 2018 Victorian AgriFuturesTM Rural Women’s Award.