Women farmers empowered by Annie’s Project

CMN-RP-1-Women farmers 1by William McNutt
Annie’s Project was founded 10 years ago by Ruth Hambleton, the daughter of Annette Fleck, in whose honor the project of educating and enabling women to become farm managers, is named. Hambleton retired from a 30 year career as extension educator at the University of Illinois in Farm Management and Marketing. She started Annie’s Project in 2003, after a lifetime career observing the needs of farm women for information and education. In this 10th anniversary year, a national goal of starting 10 new course work projects in each state has been set.
Annie herself was a very successful farm manager who grew up on a small town in Northern Illinois, graduated from teachers college and taught first and second grade before her goal of marrying a farmer became a reality. She then moved into a house containing three generations devoted to a low profit agricultural enterprise, with varying pressures from the family with varying opinions about achieving a profitable business. Annie gradually emerged as the leader while raising four children. She kept the records that helped point out mistakes, as well as how to become profitable. She kept both the farm business and the family on an even keel, while maintaining a happy family life. Big decisions that could be made based on her meticulous record keeping supported needed changes and resulted in changing long running but not too profitable farming practices.
With considerable disapproval from her extended family, she sent her husband off farm to work while she milked the cows and kept an egg route in Chicago. Her record keeping began pointing the way to moving out of dairying and poultry, then renting the remaining farm operations to better equipped and bigger farmers. She paid her share of expenses and did the marketing for corn and soybeans, becoming wealthy in the process, though never evading criticism. Project classes concentrate on such matters as risk management, financial  records, estate planning and marketing among many others, encouraging participants to make changes on the basis of what they have learned. During six weeks of intensive three-hour sessions, these and many other subjects are covered by extension experts.
More women are involved in agriculture in managerial roles than ever before — 7,000 women in 22 states have completed Annie’s Project training coursework since 2003. Five years later, 20 workshops had been completed, with half that number to be added for the anniversary year. Many graduates say the main benefit they received came from retaining the camaraderie of learning together, plus helping and mentoring when needed.
Like Annie in her day, many workshop graduates have helped improve the profit picture by changing or modernizing the enterprise. With the national trend toward local foods and direct marketing, new opportunities for growers of specialty vegetables and small fruits has taken on a new lease. But the possibility of expanded income brings increased risk, one result has been expanded emphasis on food safety for this type of unprocessed food product going directly from grower to consumer.
Extension educators develop the six week curriculum, usually in conjunction with a local committee that often includes previous class attendees. Resource personnel are secured from state and local extension educators, such as local bankers, insurance and real estate experts, plus leading farmers in the community who have developed a successful enterprise, and also have the ability to lead an educational forum type session. Regional extension specialists are always available in areas such as dairy, livestock, agronomic and specialty crops, who stress not only production and management techniques, but the ever increasing need for knowledge about  commodity markets for agronomic crops, plus expanding fresh market direct sales at auctions, municipal marketing locations and through community supported agriculture, with food safety sessions now added to an already crowded curriculum.
If interested in knowing more about Annie’s Project, contact your local extension agent for details.

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