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Annie’s Project Can Help Your Family Tackle Farm Finances

During the first decade of her marriage, Sandy Felchle, Denhoff, North Dakota, was often at a loss for words when her farmer-husband Ryan asked her views on business decisions.

“When he asked my opinion, I had no educated comments to contribute,” she says.

Despite growing up on a farm and getting a college degree in business, nothing had equipped Felchle for the specialized challenges and opportunities of sharing in decision making for the farm. She saw that she could play a bigger role.

“Ryan had lost both his dad and grandpa at an early age, and so he and I were the only ones involved in the operation,” she says. “He only had me to talk to.”

Searching for ways to become more business savvy, Felchle’s interest was sparked when she learned that an Annie’s Project course was being offered through her local Extension service.

build your confidence

Annie’s Project – Education for Farm Women is a national organization offering business education to women in agriculture. Felchle enrolled in the six-session program and learned about farm finances, human resources, enterprise analysis, record keeping, and grain and livestock marketing.

“I was particularly interested in marketing,” she says. “By taking the course, I learned about hedges and options for marketing grain. It gave me the background I needed to have informed conversations with Ryan. That made a considerable change in the way we are able to discuss business decisions.”

Building women’s confidence in their decision-making skills was the driving force behind the founding of Annie’s Project by Ruth Hambleton, a University of Illinois Extension educator in farm business management and marketing.

Hambleton saw a need for women’s business education during the farm crisis of the 1980s. “Women were calling me with questions about finances,” she says. “They were stepping up to do what they could to help with the financial challenges on their own farms.”

Yet in spite of women’s interest in the business affairs of the farm, Hambleton noticed they were not turning out for the traditional business programs offered by the Extension service.

Hambleton concluded that women didn’t feel comfortable asking questions or otherwise revealing their lack of business knowledge in mixed-gender settings.

“The creation of Annie’s Project provides women with an all-female interactive program,” she says. “Women take over the discussion and walk away better able to handle the tasks they came to the program to learn about.”

Inspiration

The inspiration behind Annie’s Project was Hambleton’s mother, Annette (Annie) Kohlhagen Fleck. “Her goal was to marry a farmer, and in 1947 she did,” says Hambleton. “She spent a lifetime learning how to be an involved business partner with her farm husband.”

Annie and her record keeping – supported by her knack for business analysis – provided the glue that held the family and the farm together during hard times.

Hambleton sees that same potential for all women in agriculture. “We women are often a lot stronger in our ability to handle adversity than men typically give us credit for,” says Hambleton. “When women have the information they need to interpret financial information, they tend to analyze it and find and pursue solutions to problems. For instance, if women see that they’re going to be late with a loan payment, they’re often more willing than men to do something proactive.”

The curriculum of Annie’s Project aims to empower women to manage finances and step up to problems. The Level One curriculum is delivered in six sessions. The Financial Risk segment teaches participants about basic financial documentation, the interpretation of financial statements, enterprise analysis, USDA programs, and record keeping. Other topics include human resources, legal issues, marketing, and production.

The segment called Managing for Today and Tomorrow covers planning in the areas of succession, business, estate, and retirement.

The national program is now offered in 33 states through the Extension service and/or Farm Credit Services. The curriculum varies depending on local needs of women.

For Felchle, the localized programming was vital. “I found it valuable that the speakers were from our community,” she says. “That allowed us to make connections with someone in our community relating to various business needs.”

Her experiences with Annie’s Project gave her a touchstone connecting her to other women in her community. “We were all there for the same reason,” she says of the course. “We wanted to learn more about farming and how to be better farm partners.”

younger farmers seeking help

As the North Dakota coordinator for Annie’s Project, Crystal Schaunaman is involved in the delivery of course curriculum.

“We didn’t offer the curriculum for a couple of years, and then we began getting requests from women farmers and ranchers asking us when we were going to offer the program again,” says Schaunaman, a county Extension agent who is also a farm partner.

The demographics of the most recent participants at Annie’s Project programs in North Dakota reveal that young women are attending.

“Of the 106 participants attending nine Annie’s Project courses held around the state in 2016 and 2017, 57% had been farming for 10 years or less; 42% were under the age of 34,” she says. “These are the people who are brand new to farming or ranching. These are the people we really need to reach out to.”

The pre- and post-course testings show the curriculum is effective. “We see a big increase in participants’ knowledge after they complete the course,” says Schaunaman.

Community building comes from Annie’s Project activities. “Women who attend the course together often stay friends,” she says. “They continue to talk about marketing and book work. Annie’s Project gives women an opportunity to find others they share something in common with.”

learn more

The Annie’s Project website shows the location of courses held in various states. If your state does not offer a curriculum, request the programming from your local Extension office or other agricultural organization. 

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