Five minutes with a Legend: Melissa Connors

Published on 10 December 2021

Photo: Melissa Connors of This Farm needs a Farmer.

It was after turning her back on a corporate career, a fashion degree, and the big smoke that she found her place in the food and drink industry. A move to Kyneton meant she could share her passion for the outdoors with others, and in 2013 she launched This Farm Needs a Farmer — a community-building program that would partner novice tree changers with seasoned farmers, local businesses, services and advice providers.

Melissa Connors was inducted into the MFWF Legends Hall of Fame as a Local Hero in 2017, and Connors’ commitment to community and sustainability is common knowledge in Kyneton. Here, she reflects on her considerable contribution to the industry. 

The proudest moment in my career has been winning the Victorian Rural Women’s award in 2018. It is a real honour to be recognised for the work that I do and to be included among such prestigious alumni in Victoria’s rural community. It leapfrogged our project a good five years forward, but to be part of this group of women that I can call on at any time has been nothing but positive. I’m very proud to be part of it.

The mistake that taught me the most was my corporate career crashing and burning when I was 25. I was working for IT companies in service delivery. It was a job with an attractive salary package and it barely motivated me at all. I wasn’t good at playing the corporate games. Once I called it quits on that part of my career, I really did jump around and figure out what I wanted to do. That career path not working out gave me the chance to try things that I really had a passion for and just go for them. My time in the corporate world was a bit of drawn-out mistake, but it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.

The reason I got into this industry was initially, it was to support my study, but I ended up staying a few years past that. Still to this day, my job at Jooce nightclub is one of my favourites, and I have taken a lot of the relationship building and multitasking skills I learned there into my career today.

The reason I stayed was the fun and camaraderie – it was a hoot. Yes, I took a break, but that sense of camaraderie is what I get to experience now every day at This Farm Needs a Farmer, and it’s really one of the perks of what I do. It was honestly those years spent forging relationships and building up confidence to just chat to people in hospitality that helped me bring people together in our community. To be able to understand what people need, how to work with them, and do it all without causing offence or annoyance is a very underrated skill, and one I hope stays with me forever. Who would have thought it would be thanks to Jooce nightclub.

My mentor was is one of the most incredible women I had the good fortune to be paired with when I won a scholarship with Inspiring Rare Birds in 2019, Angela Elliot. The timing was impeccable, and she is truly the most intelligent person I’ve ever met. Even with her background being in fast-moving consumer goods rather than farming or rural community, she’s been a constant pillar of guidance and support, especially as we’ve pivoted This Farm Needs a Farmer throughout 2020 and 2021. It has been a strong working relationship that has developed into a very solid friendship. I have a lot to thank Angela for.

If there’s one positive thing to come out of this lockdown experience, I think it’s the new appreciation for the importance of our farmers’ markets. They have been the one constant for us during COVID, and the highlight of people’s weeks here is getting out, chatting with producers and knowing you’re getting absolute quality. Castlemaine’s is just incredible. The farmers I know that work at these markets are the busiest they’ve ever been in these last two years; there’s been a real recognition of how hard our farmers work, and the quality of the produce they’re putting out there. There’s no reason why we should be importing anything, and I think the more people that go to these farmers’ markets, the more that consensus will grow.

If I could return to any moment in the Victorian hospitality industry of the last 50 years, I’d choose being able to eat out with as many friends as I want in a busy restaurant, beyond a five-kilometre radius and staying out as long as I want to with no curfew. COVID has been a very tough time, especially for rural communities, as we’re already quite removed. We used to host Friday drinks for everyone involved in This Farm Needs a Farmer at The Vic in Woodend. We’ll never take that for granted again.

But the most exciting development in the Victorian hospitality industry in the last five years is the growth and support of our local, boutique primary producers supplying the hospitality industry with high-quality, low-food-mile product.

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