Jennifer Boyles is just one in an army of Annie's Project facilitators and coordinators across the country. She's been with the Extension service for 26 years and learned about this unique program for women at an agricultural conference seven years ago.
"I heard about Annie's Project, and it seemed a good fit for me because of my experience working with women through Extension," she said. Boyles had been involved in community development and ran programs in South Carolina aimed at leadership planning, and raising the status of women in the state through professional development.
She said Annie's Project has to be different, because women learn differently. With that in mind, she created a retreat-style program, hosting 25 to 30 women.
"It's a four-day retreat, and we find it's just been a great opportunity. For many of these women, it's an opportunity to get off the farm for a few days and work with other women going through similar things.
"The relationships cannot be overstated; these women really bond. They come in from all over the state with different levels of experience and different areas of expertise. They share what's worked and what's not, and many continue to stay in touch."
While curriculums for Annie's Project vary by state and region, and participants' needs, a Level 1 program will generally include six sessions covering five risk areas: financial, human resource, legal, markets and production.
FIVE RISK AREAS
With financial risk, topics include basic financial documentation, interpreting financial statements, enterprise analysis, USDA programs and recordkeeping systems.
Human resource risk looks at things as diverse as succession planning, insurance needs and communication/management styles.
Legal risk focuses on estate planning, land leasing and employee management. Market risk teaches participants how to access market information on grain and livestock.
Production risk walks participants through the roles of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, web soil surveys and crop insurance.
GROWING OPPORTUNITY FOR WOMEN
Boyles said over the years, she's seen more opportunity for women in agriculture and changes in women's roles. In many areas, the local food movement is very strong, and she said women are leaders in that movement, as well as agritourism.
"We see women who want to diversify and encourage people to come to their farms so they can share their knowledge of agriculture, and let people experience farming firsthand," she said.
"Women often seem to have more of an emotional attachment to the land," Boyles said. "Legacy is very important to them, and it deepens their responsibility and their sense of personal responsibility to both care for the land and to ensure it is there for future generations."
ORIGINS OF ANNIE's PROJECT
The story of Annette Kohlhagen Fleck, affectionately known as "Annie," is the glue that holds Annie's Project together. Her daughter, Ruth Hambleton, founder of the program, said everyone seems to find something in her mom's life to which they can relate.
"I really attribute our success and longevity to the fact that Annie's Project is the heart and soul of a real person. She is our muse. There is always a piece of Annie's history someone recognizes, and it makes them feel the program is a part of their own history," Hambleton explained. "It's also about the people who have dedicated themselves to this. The people we work with have adopted and love the program as much as I do."
Annie grew up in a small town in northern Illinois and always wanted to marry a farmer. She did just that in 1947. They were together 50 years before she died in 1997. Along the way, the farm wife, mother and schoolteacher found that through the changing farm business environment, personal struggles and financial stresses, well-kept records were vital.
She kept the business running, the family running and her marriage running. She kept up with deadlines, reporting requirements and tax issues. As Hambleton said, "she did the little management jobs that supported the big management decisions."
It was Annie's business acumen and her detailed records that helped the family shift over the years to different enterprises, eventually buying and renting land. She paid the bills and marketed corn and soybeans. And, she did it all in the face of criticism, at times, making mistakes and learning from them as she went.
Just as Annie lived her life with strength and conviction, Hambleton said their goal at Annie's Project is to help women in agriculture today become confident achievers.
"Some women have a hard time seeing men as their peers. We want to give them that confidence and ability. We want women to realize they can be as involved as they want to be. This is America, and nobody can hold you back but yourself."
Victoria Myers can be reached at email@example.com
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