Many farm and ranch women in the United States are hearing about an educational program called Annie’s Project. Studies show that women have unique learning preferences that are often not served through traditional farm management education programs.
Impact surveys have shown that 94% of the attendees identified the all-women learning environment was important. Annie’s Project programs are designed and delivered with both in mind.
Programs are localized and conducted in small groups. Women are provided a safe harbor to learn in a stress free, open environment. They are encouraged to contribute their life experiences to facilitate learning from each other. Under the direction of trained facilitators, local specialists provide the skilled guidance needed for the educational process to blossom.
The original Annie’s Project basic series of six classes, address topics from the five areas of risk as identified by USDA.
Financial Risk – women and money, basic financial documentation, interpreting financial statements, enterprise analysis, USDA programs, and record keeping systems.
Human Resource Risk – communication and management styles, insurance needs, and succession planning.
Legal Risk – estate planning, farmland leasing, and employee management.
Market Risk – access to market information and grain or livestock marketing
Production Risk – Natural Resources Conservation Service, web soil survey, and crop insurance
Linda said: “I took the class to gain a better understanding about agribusiness and how financial decisions impact our farm operation. I have a better understanding of balance sheets and the futures market…this class has improved communication with my spouse on concerns he works with on a daily basis.”
For Carrie the program helped her with the changes in farming: “I grew up on the family farm for 21 years, but today’s way of farming is much different. As my father would say, ‘It’s a sophisticated business.’ I needed to learn more so I could be an effective member of a team in the areas of marketing and finances. I have learned about the future of farming and have been given a variety of tools that will help my father currently and my husband farm in the future.”
Yet another described moving from the city and marrying a farmer. The first time a fertilizer bill came in and it was more than what she had paid for the house she had left behind – “I came unglued!” Annie’s Project helped her understand, put it into perspective and much more.
It continues to amaze facilitators how the same program can touch so many women in such a variety of ways. Consider these quotes, all from women who participated in an Annie’s Project course:
“The best thing about the course was the networking and relationships that were developed.”
“Annie’s Project understands the obstacles that women experience.”
“Farm advisors don’t just pass me by as the farmer’s wife. I’m an integral part of the operation.”
“I would tell any woman to join the program. The knowledge you gain is invaluable and instrumental in creating a strong foundation of resources and networking.”
Annie’s Project is offered in over 30 states, reaching a wide variety of farmers and ranchers. Local facilitators provide area-specific information where appropriate, making the program fit the needs of those attending regardless of where it is presented.
According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the median age for farmers and ranchers is 58.3 years, up 1.2 years since 2007. Motivated by a growing need, APEFW worked with Iowa State University in 2012 to begin curriculum development. The resulting program, Managing for Today and Tomorrow (MTT) is divided into the following planning areas:
Succession Planning -Transferring knowledge, skills, labor, management, control and ownership between generations.
Business Planning – Developing goals, strategies and actions that form a road map to business growth.
Estate Planning – Managing an individual’s asset base in one’s lifetime, at death or after death.
Retirement Planning – Designing an enjoyable and productive time in life.
Creating a transition plan to make sure a farm continues as a productive, agricultural business can be challenging. Because women are more likely to broach the discussion, they can play a key role in planning successful farm transitions. The course gives women the opportunity to develop these skills as well as develop networks.
Past participants ranked communicating with family members and knowing how to start the conversation as a high priority in succession and transition planning. As one said, “Having concrete concepts to discuss with my husband totally opened the doors of communication!”
Distinguishing between fair and equal was ranked as a high priority in estate planning. “I have learned a lot I did not know…helped me see my family is not as unusual as I thought.” Following through was ranked as the highest priority. A past participant stated her goal was to have “…family meeting with one farm child and two off-farm children…to follow up on plans and complete goals by our set date.”
When following up with Sara after she completed the course and some time had passed, she said: “It gave me the opportunity at the right time, as I was having those farming lessons with my father, to be able to ask the questions…‘now dad how does this work in our family’s operation and how do you address this question and how do you handle this?’
We had many conversations about me taking over the family farming operation, me continuing the cattle herd. It’s about more than passing the land onto the next generation. It’s about passing that knowledge base and that wealth of information.
That’s the true legacy and that is what makes farming…such an untapped wealth, because of the knowledge and experience…It’s about living the lifestyle, doing what’s right and being a part of the farming operation.”
Today, Sara is living back in the community where she grew up, taking on a new adventure in farming. She has a purebred Charolais cow/calf herd and a corn and soybean row-crop operation. Her father has since passed away.
Brandi and her husband are fifth-generation farmers on their family farm. Her mother Rexanne runs her veterinary business. Brandi, her husband and her father run the farm. Here is what she had to say after taking the Annie’s Managing for Today and Tomorrow program.
“This has given us a lot of information to look for the future…talking about transitioning from mom and dad down to my husband and I. We never think that mom and dad are going to get old or that they can’t take care of everything.
My husband and I are looking for a future…they talked about the transition and how family farms work… We would love to see this family farm stay in the family for generations to come…it’s a passion and a lifestyle.”
Much of the program’s success is in its design, however the trained facilitators are a key component of carrying out that design. They bring in skilled experts who understand the concept of the program. They are also the ones who take responsibility for adapting information to their specific area.
In every state that is offering the program one of the facilitators take on extra responsibilities as the state coordinator. They coordinate the program in their state, do training updates and provide support in a variety of ways. They are the backbone of the program.
Several state coordinators recognized some needs and implemented a solution that has made Annie’s Project available to women who might otherwise have missed out. Due to the demographics in some states, attending the program could involve as much as three to four hours or more driving per session.
In other instances women found it very difficult to arrange for babysitting or being away for six evenings over a course of six weeks. Both these were addressed by the development of retreat-style Annie’s Projects. While these vary slightly from place to place, the basic arrangements are the same.
Women drive (or sometimes even fly) to the destination. They receive the same hours of high-quality training, but over the course of two to three days. When done, they return home. It has been quite successful thanks to the hard work and creativity of all involved.
The organization responsible for development, coordination and support of these programs is Annie's Project – Education for Farm Women (APEFW). Their mission is to empower farm women to be better business partners through networks and by managing and organizing critical information.
APEFW is an IRS designated 501(c)(3) organization established for the purpose of providing education and other opportunities to woman farmers and ranchers so that farm women can become effective owners and partners in farm businesses.
APEFW programs have been offered for fifteen years. The programs have proven to have a significant impact, assisting women in developing skills in the areas of information management, financial documents, land ownership and leasing, and marketing commodities. Annie's Project graduates have learned about estate planning, value added agriculture, and management processes and decisions needed to make successful farm or ranch transitions.
The success of these programs is largely due to their design. They are discussion-based, bringing women together to learn from experts. There is plenty of time for questions, sharing, reacting and connecting with presenters and fellow participants. One participant described it as “a relaxed, fun and dynamic way to learn, grow and meet other farm or ranch women.
Follow-up surveys show that the learning carries over into implementation after the program ends. 76% of the women used their notebooks and material when the class was over and 63% accessed on-line resources provided in the course. Most importantly, 89% shared information garnered through the classes with spouses.
“Annie’s Project audiences have told us their top concerns with farm operations are the debt loads and transition/retirement/estate planning issues. Helping women understand their value and managing finances wisely to reach family goals and finally their legacy is the goal of Annie’s Project.” – Ruth Hambleton, Founder and President of APEFW.
Ruth is the daughter of Annie Kohlhagen Fleck, who was the inspiration for developing this program. When asked how Annie would feel, knowing she had inspired a national program that has helped thousands of women, she responded: “She would be so proud.”
Annie was a woman who grew up in a small town in Northern Illinois. Her goal was to marry a farmer and she did. Annie spent her lifetime learning how to be an involved business partner with her farm husband.
Together they did great things, but it wasn’t easy. This is Annie’s Project – to take her experiences and share them with farm women living and working in a complex business. You can read Annie’s Story and learn more about the organization and its programs by visiting www.anniesproject.org.
Ruth too married a farmer. She earned a master’s degree in Agribusiness Economics, retired from University of Illinois Extension after 30 years and currently teaches courses in Agribusiness Economics at SIU Carbondale.
One of Ruth’s daughters also married a farmer, earned a master’s degree in Agribusiness Economics, and works for University of Illinois Extension. Both of them are involved in the organization as well as facilitating programs. They continue to be an important part of their farm business as history repeats itself.