Ten years ago, Amy Lehenbauer wrote down a list of goals representing her ideas for growth and improved profits at a Missouri farm to which she had just moved. At the time, those goals seemed like a big reach.
Amy was a newlywed who knew she wasn't just marrying Mark Lehenbauer but also his family -- all row-crop and livestock producers. While she worked full-time off the farm, Amy helped out when workloads were high, especially with the cattle side of the business, but she didn't see a future career for herself in production agriculture.
Those goals she wrote down were the result of a workshop she attended that first year with mother-in-law, Michelle Lehenbauer. The program, Annie's Project, would evolve into a compass for years to come and eventually help her realize her true passion.
"As time passed, I came to see the farm was where I wanted to be, where I wanted to contribute," she said recently. "About 2 1/2 years ago, I came on full-time. Looking back, it was Annie's Project that gave me the confidence to know what I could bring to the farm. It helped me see my skill set and have the network and resources in place to solve problems. Because of that program, I knew how I could truly contribute."
Lehenbauer's strongest skill set was in areas like communication and organization. She was able to help focus the operation on decisions that would make a future impact by spending more time with data and in the planning stages.
"In the cow/calf operation, for example, it is a goal to make sure every cow produces a calf every year and to increase weaning weights," she said.
The family's commercial Angus operation goes from the cow/calf side all the way through finishing. Today, they are able to better track which cows cost the operation money and make more decisions based on data and ultimate profitability.
"So, while others focus on those day-to-day things that have to get done, I am able to analyze more and look at our efficiencies," she said. "It's hard to think about things a year out when it's midnight, and you're tired and focused on a job that has to get done. I get to do that big-picture work. I think I was able to bring more balance to the operation in that way."
Lehenbauer's transition to full-time production ag is just one of literally thousands of success stories from the Annie's Project program. Founder Ruth Hambleton said more than 14,000 women, and even a few men, have completed the first level of the two-tier program since its conception in 2003. Registration fees for the program are usually around $75 per participant.
Named in honor of Ruth's mother, Annette Kohlhagen Fleck, Annie's Project focuses on skills necessary for success in traditionally male-dominated areas like land ownership and farming. The curriculum includes not just financial skills training but also an emphasis on estate planning, lease negotiations, marketing and human resource management. All are critical skills for anyone in agriculture but especially for women, said Lance Woodbury, DTN farm business adviser and "Family Business Matters" columnist for The Progressive Farmer.
A consultant in ag business and professional services, Woodbury said he sees clients taking the necessary steps to have a well-thought-out estate plan, but they don't give the same attention to areas like governance, where workable decision-making models need to be in place for transition. Often, the role of mediator and decision-maker falls to a mother or even a grandmother.
"She winds up getting pulled into business or investment decisions, mediating disagreements between siblings. While she is fully capable of handling the job, it takes a toll on her. A lot of that could be avoided if families devoted the same resources to planning how future decisions will be made as they do to their assets."
Woodbury said workshops like Annie's Project are a critical way to empower women in this role, making certain they are prepared for the future. He also suggests formalizing an advisory board that meets two or three times a year to establish a workable approach to preventing or solving issues as they arise.
Hambleton said along with preparation and empowerment, she believes it's the connections women make that are most critical to their futures.
A noted difference between Annie's Project and traditional Extension programs is methodology, Hambleton said. She said her overall goal is interaction and a program built specifically around women.
"That leads to discussion, and that leads to sharing," she said. "Before they even realize it, everyone is learning on their own terms and from one another."
Annie's Project draws participants from multiple generations, and every class is tailored to the area in which it is held.
"Our facilitators work locally, so each program is exactly what those area participants want and need to know. In the Western states, for example, you'll have more ranches, and there is more discussion about livestock, grazing rights and water issues. In the Northeast, on the other hand, there may be more emphasis on topics like farming in populated areas and EPA regulations. It just makes sense to build flexibility into a program like this."
Currently, Annie's Project is in 33 states and growing. Sponsors to date include Farm Credit, Nationwide, Brandt and Meyocks Brand Communications.
"We would like to get into all 50 states," Hambleton said. "We are what I call an 'on-demand' organization. If someone wants us in their area, we will train and support them. They will be the heart of that program. We look for facilitators with a high level of commitment, and we train them."
Not everyone is meant to be a facilitator. Hambleton said they go through a vetting process and test every potential facilitator's ability to work in the Annie's Project environment.
"You have to be confident in your knowledge and your ability to communicate," she said. "Not everyone can stand in front of a group of women and take rapid-fire questions."
One of those facilitators and an Annie's Project board member is Karisha Devlin, agribusiness specialist at the University of Missouri. She said the program resonated with her because she married into a fifth-generation farm family and did not come from a farming background.
"I did have an agricultural education background," she said. "But marrying into a farm family, and that being my husband's occupation, was a totally different kind of education."
As Devlin began to lead Annie's Project programs in Missouri, she came to see how much women needed and wanted both the interaction with their peers and the educational aspects of the curriculum.
"Annie's Project brings together an audience that wants to learn, that is so hungry and eager to learn," she said. "These women are sponges. They soak up information and ask tons of questions. They really want to take something useful back to their farming operations. They want to contribute more than they already do. It's all about helping to make that farm more of a success. That's what they all want, to see their farms, their families be successful and for that farm to be there for the next generation."
She added today's farm women have reconnected with agriculture in a way lost a few generations ago.
"I read that the invention of the plow separated women out of agriculture," she said. "The plow required more strength, so men began to be the ones in the field doing the work, and they became the farmers. Technology has taken us full circle. Physical strength is no longer a requirement to farm. We're seeing women return to farming all across the country and it's because this is no longer only a man's role."
Devlin said Annie's Project is the only program she has ever taught where she gets thank you cards later. Also, the stories participants share have deepened her commitment during the years.
"One lady lost her husband after attending Annie's Project," Devlin recalled. "She wrote and told me that because of the program and the people she had met, she knew the steps to take and where to go for resources to make those hard decisions after her husband passed. To know you helped someone during one of the darkest times of their life means so much."
Devlin added that sometimes farm women can feel isolated. Annie's Project gives them that social network with other farm women they may crave.
"It doesn't matter if you've been a farm wife for 30 years or you're newly married, agriculture can be isolating. This is a way for women to network and bounce ideas off each other. I've seen some create marketing clubs, for example, after attending a program. They build camaraderie and learn in a safe, comfortable environment. We have a whole range of life experiences in these classes -- maybe the youngest is 17 and the oldest is 80. Think about what they can learn from each other. That is just invaluable."
DOOR TO DIVERSIFICATION
One of Annie's Project's younger participants, Britney Hervey, graduated from her first class in 2015. She works the family farm her grandfather homesteaded in Wellsburg, West Virginia.
Passed down through the generations, the land was an opportunity for Hervey and husband, Charlie, to generate income. They started off with 1 acre of sweet corn and a roadside stand in 2012.
"Little by little, our customers wanted more things. So we added beans. And, my dad sold maple syrup," she said. "My mom and I went to Annie's Project in 2015 with the idea that we wanted to find ways to grow our business."
Hervey said what they learned was pretty simple. "We were working way too hard, and we were going about things the wrong way. We were learning as we went, and we weren't always making the best decisions. Annie's Project was the turning point for our business."
After the program, Hervey said they developed a business plan and a pricing basis for the maple syrup that was based on more than a Google search. They also learned about diversification.
"That was key. Learning how to price and how to diversify what we were producing made a tremendous impact on our operation," she explained.
Hervey reported they went from 40 maple taps in 2000 to more than 1,000 taps today. They now sell value-added specialty items made from the maple syrup. And, they went from 1 acre of corn and a small garden to more than 8 acres of vegetable production and two high tunnels. They also added a u-pick strawberry patch.
"We understand risk management better now, and we are confident that we can manage risks associated with business decisions," Hervey said.
Annie's Project even helped them get financial help with those high tunnels by familiarizing them with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and its role. Thanks to those tunnels, they can grow vegetables almost year-round.
All of this growth has taken place in just five years. "It's been an exciting journey," Hervey said. "We are very fortunate, and I give the credit to Annie's Project, Extension and our department of ag in West Virginia. We didn't have the knowledge or the background, and now we have the tools we need."
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Missouri's Amy Lehenbauer said she still uses the tools she gained in her first Annie's Project class, too. She's even completed the second level of the program, and, like Hervey, said she's still learning every day and using the connections she made.
What about those goals she wrote down 10 years ago? At the time, they were fairly ambitious.
"I wanted to establish a farm website and have a social media presence," Lehenbauer said. "We wanted to create an employee handbook and have a training program for new employees. We also had a goal of establishing an expense tracking system that assigned all repair and maintenance costs to individual machines."
With regards to the cattle operation, she noted the overall goal was more efficiency in the cow herd. That included specific goals such as improving weaning weights, raising their own fall replacement heifers, boosting conception rates and shortening the calving window by using artificial insemination on all their cows.
Lehenbauer said when she wrote down those goals as part of the class, she doesn't recall being all that focused. But, she did talk about them. "I remember going home and talking to my husband about those ideas, those goals. Ten years ago, the idea of telling your story on a website wasn't all that common, for example. But, we agreed they were good, positive goals, and that in the long run, they could help us."
After that conversation, like many good things, those ideas were set aside and lost in the day-to-day to which every farmer can relate. Not so long ago, though, Lehenbauer ran across that old list of goals.
"I had forgotten about them, honestly. They were not something I thought about every day. When I saw that workbook, I opened it up and read through those goals. And, what was crazy was that as I read through them, I realized we had accomplished every single goal. It was amazing. Even when you aren't thinking about achieving something every minute of every day, it still happens.
"Annie's Project was, for me, the first step to living my passion. I'm amazed at how far it's taken us. And, even though our goals from that first class are accomplished, I know it's not the end of anything. It's just time to look even further ahead and work on the next set of goals."
For More Information:
Annie's Project: www.anniesproject.org
Family Roots Farm: www.familyrootsfarmwv.com
Lehenbauer Farms Inc.: www.lehenbauerfarms.com
Victoria Myers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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