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Annie's Project raises the bar

Agriculture.com Staff 03/13/2007 @ 2:06pm

Not so long ago, Mary Parker divided her time between a part-time job and the farm. But as she began taking on more responsibilities in her family's corn and soybean operation near Sloan, Iowa, she saw opportunities for full-time involvement in the farm.

"I could see that my husband was often frustrated by some decisions that needed to be made, particularly those relating to marketing, and we began to think that two heads could be better than one," she says. "We decided I would stay home, and we would concentrate on running our farm business together."

An Extension program called Annie's Project gave Parker the beginning skills she needed to shoulder more of the management chores and broaden her working relationship with her husband, Jim.

Annie's Project is a six-week farm business course for women covering financial management, marketing, and information about insurance (see sidebar for more details).

"The course gave me more confidence and gave us more tools we can use in making decisions," she says. "It pushed us to become more efficient. We're using a budgeting program to get a better handle on our production costs for corn and beans, and we'll use the information to develop a better marketing plan."

In addition, she and her husband have updated their wills, improved their life insurance policy, and revisited their retirement program.

Kathy Holte, who farms with her husband, Gerald, near Voltaire, North Dakota, always has shared in decision-making and field operations. Annie's Project offered a clearer view of the business and a better sense of Gerald's concerns.

"Our conversations are different now," she says. "To a greater extent, I understand what he's talking about and the choices he has to make. We can have a two-way conversation. The questions I ask draw different answers than before because he knows that I am more aware of how the system works."

All this has led to a greater sharing of opinions between the couple. In the aftermath of Annie's Project, both Holte and Parker plan to learn more about marketing. Holte is taking an advanced marketing course to extend her role in marketing the farm's corn, peas, soybeans, and small grains.

Parker already has followed up with a marketing course and is putting it to work. "We were always waiting for the highest price to sell our corn and beans," she says. "I learned that we need to develop a plan and stick to it, selling our crops at different times of the year to spread the risk."

Recognizing that family farms thrive best when the partners have a good understanding of people, Annie's Project launches its coursework with a program on personality differences.

"That was a real eye-opener, and it gave me a whole new perspective I wish I had 20 years ago," says Roberta Hagert. She and her husband, Curtis, farm near Emerado, North Dakota, and they will soon turn the farm over to their son, Jared.

What Annie's Project taught her about personality differences, she says, can be used to improve working relationships between employers and employees, husbands and wives, parents and children.

"We learned how to better handle people, pick up on others' feelings, and better express our opinions," she says. "One type of person likes to hear just the facts. Others need more details and the why or how of it. Sometimes we lose patience. We get sharp, and they can't handle that."

The Parkers enjoy a compatible working relationship. Thanks to Annie's Project, they're expanding on it. "My husband has welcomed my greater involvement in the farm business," she says. "We can handle responsibilities together, like developing a marketing plan. And it takes some of the burden off him.

"I used to think of our farm as his business; I was afraid to jump in. But Annie's Project gave me confidence. Now I see it as our business," Parker says.

Annie's Project is a national Extension program designed for farm women. The six-week course, developed at the University of Illinois, was inspired by the life of an Illinois farm woman who learned how to become a better business partner with her farm husband.

The courses cover a number of topics relating to farm financial management, grain marketing, and insurance. They combine lecture, discussion, individual and small-group activities, and computer training. In North Dakota, the program costs $100 per person and includes software, books, and materials.

Besides teaching better business skills, Annie's Project gives women a chance to draw moral support from women with similar interests.

"A lot of people don't understand the farm way of life, and so you can't talk about either the frustrations or the rewards," says Mary Parker, a Sloan, Iowa, participant. "Annie's Project gave me a chance to share with other women who want to be more involved in their farm operations."

Parker and her classmates plan to meet periodically to renew friendships and update each other on the progress they have made in applying new business skills to their family farm enterprises. Staff from the local Extension office are helping them conduct their meetings.

The growth of the program in North Dakota alone speaks for women's interest. "Last year we drew about 100 participants to five course sites," says North Dakota Extension educator Willie Huot. "This year, we'll hold Annie's Project at 16 locations, and we're expecting at least 300 participants."

www.extension.iastate.edu/annie
www.ag.ndsu.edu/anniesproject or 701/780-8229

Not so long ago, Mary Parker divided her time between a part-time job and the farm. But as she began taking on more responsibilities in her family's corn and soybean operation near Sloan, Iowa, she saw opportunities for full-time involvement in the farm.

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