Annie’s Project sweeps across the country

Above, Annette “Annie” Fleck, shown here around 1942, has become a model for women wanting to achieve better profitability in agriculture.

It’s obvious that Annie is having a huge influence on women farmers throughout the Midwest, West and farther, even though she died in 1997. In fact, she is sweeping through the bulk of the nation like a prairie fire, only twice as hot.

Why is she so popular? Because she has something valuable to offer.

Annie’s Project is a farm risk management program designed for women, named after Annette “Annie” Fleck, whose daughter, Ruth Hambleton, started this enterprise based on the memories of her mother, a farm wife and operator who struggled to overcome low profitability, and did. The information being disseminated by the project is based on concepts devised by Annie and recognized as useful for women everywhere who own or help operate farms.

“They did not talk about those kinds of things” back in the 1970s and 1980s when her mother was fighting to survive, Hambleton says, but why not address farm issues for women nowadays, when an estimated one-fifth of farmers are women and many others help run farms? Why not set up meetings with groups of women in an era when more and more women are taking over farms? Why not help women, specifically, when women have such a sharing and nurturing nature and will use the information to assist each other?

That is essentially the philosophy that led Hambleton to begin devising Annie’s Project in 2002 and hold the first meeting in Illinois in 2003. She is a University of Illinois Extension educator in Farm Business Management and Marketing, and she set up the project with a focus on risk management. Since then, it has moved into 12 states, as far west as Oklahoma, North Dakota and Nebraska, and will be in 15 by early 2008. The goal, she says, is to have a nationwide presence by the end of 2008.

Funded by the USDA and using its risk management guidelines, Annie’s Project sets up group meetings for women involved in agriculture in different farm communities. Its presentations focus on five areas of risk management from production and marketing to finances, legal issues and human resources. It has been so successful that it has reached hundreds of women farmers and is now trying to find a way to go online.

“We do small groups, under 25 in the group,” Hambleton says. It touches on production issues only briefly, in areas such as knowing input costs, and really shines when it comes to marketing risks. Addressing issues such as price establishment, crop selection and marketing plans, the groups are led by Hambleton and/or similar experts in each state. The curriculum was developed at the University of Illinois. For women, marketing and other topics are often made easier just by making them familiar with the vocabulary of agribusiness. They are often in the dark about words such as margins. Women are “naturals” at marketing once they grasp the concepts and start using the jargon in a constructive way.

The farm women who take part in the Annie’s Project seminars, such as this one in Bloomington, Ind., learn to manage the risk on their farms and work together to do so.

Teaching about financial risk is where the groups do their “best work,” Hambleton points out. Even though women often keep the books on a farm, they often don’t know much about the big picture or how to use computers to best advantage. The seminars show them how to keep records and look at farm investments, which immediately reduces a farm’s risks. Knowledge is power, after all.

Women also readily take to reducing legal risks because they inherently recognize threats of a legal nature. Hambleton says that these vary in each region, but many legal issues are big risks and stressors for women on the farm. In Illinois, a group might discuss the pitfalls of leasing land, while in Missouri it might discuss “identity preserve” issues such as the liability of selling vegetables or processed goods at a market. In either case, once the issue is discussed, women quickly are able to take action to reduce risk and stress on their farms.

Again, the topic of human resources on a farm, once discussed, opens up women’s native abilities to correct problems. Hambleton notes that these people issues have to do with the interaction of personalities on a farm, and in many cases interaction with hired labor. Seminars teach how to read personalities, avoid conflict and streamline management. She cites an example of two sisters on a corporate farm who had extremely different management styles. Once they understood why they were having conflicts they were able to use their different skills to mutual benefit.

Much of the training has to do with how to use a computer and financial software, but on the other hand, more of it has todo with how to put the unique psychology of women to positive benefit. Women are inherent sharers and networkers, Hambleton says. Put them in a group and they will soak up information and spread it like that grass fire.

“Women are naturals at this,” Hambleton says. She says in marketing, for example, they quickly learn how to recognize a profit margin and cash in on it. Men too often try to wait for peak profits, the big payoff, while women readily accept a reasonable profit and sell a crop before it has a chance to crash. That is risk reduction at its best.

Women also are loathe to step out and take responsibility in a normal family farm situation, Hambleton says, if they don’t feel comfortable enough with the limited knowledge they have. Once informed, and reminded that they don’t have to be perfect in their decision-making, they will take an enthusiastic role and become an even more important part of the farm enterprise. In short, they become empowered.

Ruth Hambleton, founder of Annie’s Project, based the seminars on the idea that women can be much better farmers if versed in risk management.

“We run the gamut of who we attract to the classes,” Hambleton says. They range from the shy housewife who is afraid to step out of the house, to the tractor driver who wants to always be a player in enterprise decision-making. Some have been the farm bookkeeper for years and want a more active role, while some have been widowed and thrust into the role of farm owner and operator. Some are “dreamers” who want to take a few acres of land and create an on-farm market using vegetables and fruit they grow themselves, some are big corn or soybean growers who just want to reduce the risk of their operations.

One component of the groups is the use of mentors—both the experts conducting the meetings and the more experienced farmers in the group—to help the women after they have left the series of classes. With local experts involved in each state, specific issues to dairy farmers, corn growers or wine grape growers can be addressed. Another component is a follow-up evaluation, which reminds them to stay involved, and a third is an encouragement to network following the classes. Members do often keep in touch. Some go so far as to set up other meetings or e-mail/chat lists so they can continue to seek out new information.

Hambleton says the meetings offer four essentials that encourage women to attend: safe harbor for their ideas and questions; guided intelligence, which means that they can feel free to use their uniquely female skill sets to progress; connections to risk management professionals; and the encouragement of a sense of discovery that will excite and empower them.

“You send them out highly motivated,” she says. The irony is that Annie’s Project has tried to include men in the classes, but it wasn’t that successful. Men in a mixed group tend to sit and absorb information, and the women in that group were fearful of speaking up. It didn’t accomplish the educational goals of the project.

However, among women, this has been tremendously successful. That’s why, by the end of 2008, Hambleton expects to see Annie’s Project in all 50 states as well as Canada. Some states, such as Iowa, are extremely avid users and promoters of the project. In fact, go to Iowa State University’s Web site on the project at www.extension.iastate.edu/Annie/ to get more information on its scope and curriculum.

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.