Own your vulnerability

by Melanie Epp

In 2015, one of my North American editors asked if I would be willing to cover Agritechnica in Hanover for the province’s weekly farm paper. Due to budget constraints they had been unable to send a journalist in previous years. But since I had moved to Belgium the year before, I was close enough to cover the event without breaking the bank. Without fully understanding what I was accepting, I said yes without hesitation.

Some months later, I arrived in Hanover. Excitement was quickly replaced by trepidation. If you’ve never been to Agritechnica then my horror will be difficult to fully comprehend. It isn’t just that Hanover Fairground is one of the largest trade fair venues in the world. Its 26 halls and outdoor grounds are enormous, and they showcase more agricultural machinery in one place than any other event in the world. If you’re into agricultural machinery, this is your Mecca. I, however, am not into machinery. I stood there and let the sheer magnitude of it all sink in. How on earth was I going to do this? I’d never even sat in a tractor cab.

You might be wondering at this point what kind of an agricultural journalist has never sat in a tractor. Arguably, not a very good one. But journalism, I believe, is not about what you already know. It’s about asking the right questions, listening and compiling useful information in a thought-provoking way. This, I could do.

I remember my first day at the fairgrounds as if it were yesterday. I stepped off the tram and hurriedly followed the hundreds of bustling bodies, all carrying briefcases and dragging suitcases towards the main entrance. Agritechnica draws over 400,000 people to Hanover every two years. It’s big business both on the fairgrounds and off. Hotels sell out a year in advance, and many visitors commute from afar each day.

As we headed up the escalator, I snuck a look at the people around me. Who were they? Where had they come from? What brought them to Agritechnica? And that’s when I noticed it. To my surprise, as far as the eye could see, there was not another woman in sight. I groaned inwardly.

Now, there are benefits to being one of very few women at what I call the ‘big boy’s show.’ For one, you never have to queue up to use the bathroom. Courteous men will hold doors open for you, it’s easy to get a seat on the train, and you never really have to wait in line for coffee.

But there are disadvantages too. While it’s not hard to get the attention of vendors and salespeople, it is often difficult to get respect, especially if you’re in the company of male journalists.

Being a woman at a male-dominated event often garners unwanted sexual attention too. I can ignore the flirting, and have no problem calling out and walking away from downright harassment. What I find most difficult to swallow is condescension.

On what was probably my second day at Agritechnica, I headed towards an equipment manufacturer to check out a cutting edge swather. I only knew it was a swather because I’d stayed up late the night before researching all the equipment I’d see the next day. I wasn’t worried about using the wrong lingo or not knowing exactly what made it cutting edge. That’s why I was here. I simply wanted to gather enough information to put together solid questions that would generate answers our readers would find relevant. So when the sales rep put his arm around my shoulder, smiled down at me, and smugly said, “Little lady, do you even know what this is?” I was irritated.

“No,” I said sarcastically. “They sent me all the way from Canada to ask you.”

It wasn’t the creepy arm on my shoulder. It wasn’t the “little lady” comment. It was the fact that he felt it necessary to patronise me for not knowing what he knew intimately

I saw him cringe and for a second I felt bad. He was just one of a long line of men who would talk to me like I was an idiot that week. I should have been used to it. I should have taken a deep breath, made a little joke and responded with my usual smile. But I couldn’t. It wasn’t the creepy arm on my shoulder. It wasn’t the “little lady” comment. It was the fact that he felt it necessary to patronise me for not knowing what he knew intimately. It’s because he tried to shame me for my ignorance. But mostly it’s because I firmly believe ‘not knowing’ is exactly what makes me a good writer.

In my early days as a journalist I battled imposter syndrome on a daily basis. I didn’t study journalism, and I wasn’t raised on a farm. I was a city girl, born and raised. But I had – and still have – a keen interest in agriculture. Despite that, I remember trying to hide my ignorance. Worried they wouldn’t take me seriously, I stood back and listened to the other journalists’ questions.

Slowly, I began to see my weakness as strength. Not knowing is exactly what makes me a strong journalist. I make no assumptions, and often ask questions others don’t. I view the farmer’s world from the outside, which, I believe, allows me to approach topics from many different angles.

Following my response, the equipment salesman quickly removed his arm from my shoulder, collected himself as best he could, and stuttered his way through an explanation. I asked my ‘stupid’ questions, got the answers I needed, and wrote a short piece on the equipment’s merits and shortcomings.

Yes, knowledge is powerful, but not knowing something doesn’t make you weak. I’d even argue that sometimes ignorance is a blessing. You’d be surprised what kind of information people are willing to share if you let your vulnerability shine.

Melanie Epp is a freelance agricultural journalist from Canada. She writes about everything from potatoes to poultry, soil health to livestock production. But she’s happiest when she’s writing about farmers around the world – who they are, what they do, and how they do it. Melanie has been living in Belgium since 2014.





Text: Melanie Epp – Photos: Melanie Epp & Swen Pförtner

This column was published in Women in Ag Mag 2021-2. Click here to read the magazine

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