My year as Victoria’s Rural Women of the Year for 2015 is done and dusted! It was my very great pleasure a couple of weeks ago to pass the baton to this year’s winner, Dr. Jessica Lye.

Jess’s proposed biosecurity project promises great things for Victorian horticulture.

Dr. Jessica Lye, Victorian Rural Woman of the Year 2016, accepts her award.
Dr. Jessica Lye, Victorian Rural Woman of the Year 2016, accepts her award.

Congratulations also to the other two finalists, Emily McVeigh and Karen Williamson.

They both had great project ideas, and would also have been worthy winners. As the outgoing award recipient, I had the privilege of being on the selection panel for the 2016 award.

I can assure you, it was a tough decision!

Victorian Minister for Agriculture Jaala Pulford with this year's RIRDC Rural Women's Award winner Dr Jess Lye (middle right) and finalists Emily McVeigh (left) and Karen Williamson (right)
Victorian Minister for Agriculture Jaala Pulford with this year’s RIRDC Rural Women’s Award winner Dr. Jess Lye (middle right) and finalists Emily McVeigh (left) and Karen Williamson (right)

So, it’s time for me to look back and review the year, which I hope will give other women who might apply for the award in the future a realistic idea of the highs and the lows, and an understanding of where the award can take them.

Overall, it’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience which has left me feeling more confident in my abilities and capacity, but the highlight has to be hearing Minister Jaala Pulford respond positively to my final speech at the handover ceremony in Parliament House, in which I called for a State Government review into the economic benefits of farmers markets. In the first instance it was great just to have the chance to put my point of view directly to the Minister, but then to hear her say ‘I’ve heard you, and yes we’ll do that’ was pretty mind-blowing! I think I looked calm, but inside I was totally fist-pumping (though at the same time part of me was still having to pinch myself, that I was even there – ah, the contradictions of being a woman!).

Katie with Heather Stacy from the RIRDC board (on the right), and Vicki Woodburn from RIRDC (on the left) at this year's award ceremony.
Katie with Heather Stacy from the RIRDC board (on the right), and Vicki Woodburn from RIRDC (on the left) at this year’s award ceremony.

The other real highlight has been the people I’ve met – not just famous people like politicians, but all the inspiring, interesting, funny, warm and generous women I’ve met throughout the year. I’ve had terrific conversations, learned a lot, made new friends and contacts, and had some really good laughs!

There were of course a few lowlights as well, the main one being the way I felt at the National Awards dinner, when I came as close to having a panic attack as I can ever remember. It was physically all I could do to make myself stay in the room and appear to be normal, when I desperately wanted to just leave, or go to the bathroom and throw up.  I don’t often get pushed to extremes like that, and I really had to ask myself over the next few days and weeks – what was that about? (I shared it in a blog at the time).

The other difficult bits were every time I agreed to do something new or scary, particularly public speaking, and especially to audiences that included women I know and respect. Not that I ever felt anything other than completely supported by them, but I really wanted to impress them! The weird thing is, I do public speaking all the time in my day job running fruit growing workshops in front of complete strangers, and I always feel so confident and competent that you can’t shut me up. But even after a year’s practise, when I made my speech at Jess’ award ceremony the other day I still had the full butterflies in the stomach, mouth so dry I almost couldn’t speak, losing my place in my notes…I felt like a complete novice. I can’t even really remember what I said, though I obviously got something out judging by Minister Pulford’s response.

What I learned from all those scary bits is that I can do it, survive, and even be influential (even when it feels uncomfortable). It’s just a skill, and the only way to get better is to keep on practising. (I was asked the other day to speak at an event in a couple of months, so I’m clearly going to get the chance!)

But back to the good bits. Here’s some more benefits the award’s given me:

  • Feeling the love! Overwhelming support, good wishes, congratulations and genuine delight in my achievement from so many people.
  • Being supported to run an exciting project I feel passionate about, and then getting the chance to put what I learned into action-very satisfying. (I’ll blog about the project soon.)
  • A new qualification by graduating from the Company Directors Course (and getting to put GAICD after my name!).
  • I now hold positions on two boards – Maldon and District Community Bank, and Melbourne Farmers Markets, which will also lead to extra options for my future career paths as I get more board experience.
  • My reputation and credibility seems to have increased in the community which has led to things like being asked to act as referee, be on panels, and to hold positions of trust.
  • Having to commit to my RIRDC project meant I had to restructure the farm business to give me more time (woo hoo!). This was a turning point for the business, and has had a lasting impact.
  • I’ve learned new skills in the project (for example how to run a webinar) that I’ve brought back into our online Grow Great Fruit business.
  • Networking, new contacts, media exposure and lots of attention on social media have all increased public awareness of our other businesses.
  • It felt like winning the Rural Women’s Award also helped us win the Mt Alexander Shire Business of the Year…
  • Heaps of travel, delicious meals, and staying in posh hotels!

I can’t thank the RIRDC team and board enough (especially Dani, Jen, Alana, Vicki … and everyone else). Quite apart from their vision and commitment to running the awards, every single person I met has with treated me with respect, generosity and kindness. Once I got over the dreaded imposter syndrome, it was actually incredibly empowering to be treated as kind of important all year, not in a big-headed way, but in a way that somehow created a space for me to step up into being the leader they thought I could be.

There are too many other people I need to thank to name everyone, but I do want to say special thanks to Sam Longley from the Department of Economic Development and her team, and of course, to my darling Hugh. To merely say he’s supportive is doing him an injustice – he positively cheers me on from the sidelines, and has been largely responsible for me being able to wholeheartedly embrace the opportunities that have come my way.

These awards are great. I will be eternally grateful for being involved. If you’re thinking about applying, DO IT!

Katie and Sam Longley from the Department of Economic Development enjoying a laugh
Katie and Sam Longley from the Department of Economic Development enjoying a laugh

My RIRDC Victorian Rural Women’s Award project, called “Farmers Markets Building Communities” was been made possible by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) Rural Women’s Awards.

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