Ag journalist writes her own happy ending
Melanie Epp covers stories on food and farming all over the world
Melanie Epp has had a deep passion for writing since she was a child.
She started by crafting stories at a young age and even created her own magazine with her sister in the late 1980s.
When it came time to pick a career, though, Melanie didn't consider writing as an option, not right away, anyway.
After spending a few years travelling the world, and a few more years after that working in restaurants and bars, Melanie enrolled at the University of Guelph at 27 years old.
She studied English Literature and History.
Melanie's passion for the written word was still there but soon a new subject matter -food -started to intrigue her.
"I was one of those people who was terrified of where my food came from," Melanie said. "I wanted to know where my food came from before it was ever a movement."
So Melanie created a blog. It was called '100 Mile Mel' and it explored local food, healthy living and sustainable practices.
To get content, Melanie asked farmers if she could visit their farms. She offered a day's worth of labour in exchange for lessons on food and farming from the experts themselves.
As Melanie took her first steps into the complicated world of food production, she documented the journey online. Eventually, Melanie realized that '100 Mile Mel' could be more than a hobby.
"I remember thinking if this could be my job, I would be the happiest person," she said.
The thought of traveling, meeting new people and learning about food and farming was inspiring enough for Melanie to quit her job and take a chance.
"I don't know where it came from but I walked into work and said I am going to be a writer, this is what I am going to do, I am going for it."
This wouldn't be the last leap of faith Melanie would take in her life but we'll get into that a little later.
As a new full-time writer, Melanie got organized. She made a plan and gave herself five years to write solely about agriculture and food. It ended up taking her two.
So how'd she do it? Well, for starters she pitched her blog to different editors and got some initial responses.
That led to a handful of assignments, which often times act as sort of an audition between the writer and the editor.
If the editor likes what she or he sees, there's the possibility of more assignments, more articles and more work.
Melanie also joined the Eastern Canada Farm Writers' Association to network and learn from other farm writers in the industry. She eventually became an ECFWA board member and was later elected vice-chair.
In the beginning, Melanie said the learning curve was steep.
"Sometimes the stories I was taking on required more time and energy than a writer who came from a farm," she said. "It's gotten a lot better over the years, though. You learn a lot of things and you don't lose the things you learn."
Becoming an agricultural journalist was everything Melanie imagined it would be and more.
By 2014, she was writing for a variety of agricultural publications (including Ontario Farmer) and traveling the world on assignment.
That August, Melanie was asked by Ontario Farmer to cover a mastitis conference in the city of Ghent in Belgium. She jumped at the chance, not knowing at the time that this five-day trip would change the course of her life forever.
Melanie covered the conference like a pro and on the last day decided to pop into a pub for a pint.
She was leaving for Paris the next morning for a few days before flying back to Canada, or so she thought.
What happened next is nothing short of a romantic movie (or a romantic novel for the readers in the group).
That night, in the pub, Melanie met a man. He was kind and shy and he politely asked her if she had seen the sights while she'd been visiting Ghent.
Admittedly, she had not, so instead of going to Paris as planned, Melanie decided to stay in Belgium and tour the historical city with a bartender she hadn’t known even 24 hours prior.
His name was Bart and after two and a half days together, Melanie said she flew home to Canada in tears.
To make a long story short, and I hesitate to do that because it’s a pretty amazing story, Melanie and Bart met up again a few weeks later in Ireland.
She was back in Europe for a journalism conference and he agreed to fly to Dublin to see her.
“I thought this is insane but I figured I could spend the rest of my life wondering about this guy or go for it,” Melanie said.
The trip to Dublin sealed the deal and Melanie moved to Belgium on October 14, 2014.
Her North American editors agreed she could write from anywhere so the move wasn’t a huge risk when it came to work.
Meanwhile, the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement between Europe and Canada was just getting going so it was a good time to be a Canadian agricultural journalist in the E.U.
It wasn’t easy adjusting to a new culture or a new language and Melanie said it was tough “professionally and emotionally” at first.
“You wouldn’t think that a Western European country would be all that different than a country that was founded on the same principles but it is,” Melanie said.
She spent most of her time early on alone in her new apartment writing and looking for local assignments.
Over time, a lot of the North American work dried up so the freelancer found herself pitching to new publications once again.
That was four and a half years ago and Melanie said, slowly but surely she’s developed a solid work base in Ghent.
Today, she writes for over 20 different publications. Her articles are typically in English and have been translated into Dutch, German and French.
Melanie has been on press trips to the Netherlands, Croatia, Germany, France, Italy and more.
“It’s very cool to learn about agriculture in different countries and meet farmers,” she said. “It’s funny, everywhere you go it’s the same; farmers face the same challenges.”
Last September, Melanie made the trip back to Canada, this time bringing Bart with her.
It wasn’t a permanent stay and the couple returned to Ghent after three weeks of touring Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and, of course, Ontario.
Just as Melanie fell in love with Belgium, Bart loved Canada instantly. The happy couple plan on making another trip back this summer.