“I think woman in farming are really “breaking the glass ceiling’ in a typically male-dominated occupation,” Jennie Schmidt said. Photo credit: Remsberg Inc.

Today’s female farm owners and farm wives deal with all the usual challenges of birthing livestock, fighting plant disease, and convincing bankers to float their operation yet another loan. Plus, they grapple with obstacles no previous farm family had to decipher – like puzzling out the impact of the Affordable Health Care Act (Obamacare) on the farm family. Is it required on farms?

There is some solace in knowing others have gone before, wrestled with such challenges and found good solutions. Better yet, many of those women are willing to share their advice in a program called Annie’s Project.

Annie’s Project programs run in 33 states, including Delaware, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Other New England states are evaluating the program but have not taken the plunge.

“Women have the same response to the program whether they are 75 and have farmed all their lives or 23 and just getting started,” Jenny Rhodes, extension educator for ag in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, said. “They say, ‘I can go home and ask intelligent questions about things I don’t understand.'”

Annie’s Project Participant Jennie Schmidt added, “As a woman in agriculture, I can achieve the same success as a male counterpart.” Her Queen Anne’s County operation is mostly corn, soybeans and wheat, and they also have tomatoes, green beans, hay and grapes.

“I think women in farming are really ‘breaking the grass ceiling’ in a typically male-dominated occupation,” she said.

Today, women are more of a presence in farms of all types and sizes. “I am part of a large, diversified production ag operation and can hold my own on the sprayer or just about any other piece of equipment,” Schmidt said. Perhaps more important, she added, “Farm advisors don’t just pass me by as the farmer’s wife. I’m an integral part of the operation.

“Annie’s Project helped lead me down this path,” Schmidt said.

Carol Przewozny, Hunterdon County, New Jersey, first heard about Annie’s Project in 2010 when county agent Bob Mickel asked if she would be interested in sharing farm experiences with other farm women. “I jumped at the chance,” she said. First, she went to a focus group session presented by Mickel, Steve Komar, and a team from Annie’s Project. From that meeting the first Annie’s Project evolved in New Jersey.

Carol Przewozny learned why a mission statement and business plan are so important and how to create one. “We had been running our farm for years without either,” she said. Here, she gets turkeys ready. “The knowledge you gain from Annie’s Project is invaluable,” she said.Carol Przewozny learned why a mission statement and business plan are so important and how to create one. “We had been running our farm for years without either,” she said. Here, she gets turkeys ready. “The knowledge you gain from Annie’s Project is invaluable,” she said

Photo by Benny Przewozny.

Przewozny loves the journey that Annie’s Project took her on, collaborating with other female farmers. “I learned why a mission statement and business plan is so important and how to create one,” Przewozny said. “We had been running our farm for years without either.”

They would borrow from the house account to pay for the farm. “After creating our mission statement the farm now had a true vision with measurable goals. Our business plan allowed us to assess our current situation, and forced us to set objectives and goals both long term and short term for the farm,” Przewozny said. “Now daily decisions are made based on our goals. Within one year we started to make a profit.”

“We’ve known about Annie’s for many years and finally initiated a program with the support of grant funds from USDA,” Mike Sciabarrasi, with Annie’s Project at the University of New Hampshire, said. “Our first year (2014) we had 18 participants actively involved.” That was a management program.

“I first learned of Annie’s Project through a publication put out by our county CCE-Farm Flash. It was advertised there and coordinated and developed by Bonnie Collins, who I admire and respect,” Debbie Finn, Oneida County, New York, said. She signed up for the course.

“The best thing about the course was the networking and relationships that were developed,” Finn said. While she is on a Holstein-Jersey dairy operation, she found, “There was opportunity to learn about all areas of agriculture and important topics specific to farm families.”

Maryland’s version of Annie’s Project started in 2008 and more than 500 women have participated since. “It is all risk-management based,” Rhodes said. Rhodes, a farmer, grew up on a farm and saw her mom and dad work out the complex business and personal relationship of being a farm couple. Maryland is a diverse state and county programs vary from the grain-marketing focus on the mid-Shore area to niche farmers markets in the West and poultry on the Eastern Shore.

“Our programs educate farmers and aspiring farmers or farm business owners,” Rhodes said. A mainstay of every program is learning to write a business plan. They also do personality evaluations, and address insurance and legal needs as well as family communications strategies.

As in other states, Maryland’s program brings in local ag law specialists and insurance agents. Nationwide Insurance is a partner of the program and many local businesses pitch in.

“Annie’s Project is an experience you don’t want to let pass by,” Debbie Finn of Finndale Farms said.

Photo by Debbie Finn.

“The networking helps you broaden your horizon to know what other women in your region are doing and who you can turn to with questions,” Schmidt said.

New Jersey’s program, too, strives to empower women by giving them risk management training to manage farms. “Our agriculture is so diverse that, except for our Greenhouse Annie’s Project class, we have stuck to management, business and marketing topics rather than production,” Robin Brumfield, professor of farm management at Rutgers University, said. Basic classes meet once a week for six to eight weeks. Participants work on part of a business plan each week.

The Jersey Annie’s Project started with a small grant in 2010 and its first class in 2011. Jenny Carleo, county agent in Cape May County, and Brumfield – both working on the idea of focusing on training for women – joined forces. The team of Rutgers faculty working on this has grown over the years, serving more than 300 participants to date.

“By the end of the course, our goal is that they leave with a business plan, or at least a good start on one,” Brumfield said.

Meet Annie, herself

Annette “Annie” Kolhagen grew up a townie in northern Illinois, hoping to marry a farmer. She did. As Annie Fleck, she spent her lifetime learning how to be an involved business partner with her farmer-husband. The process wasn’t easy.

Her daughter, Ruth Hambleton, observed the struggle. Later, as an extension farm business management specialist at the University of Illinois, Hambleton was in a position to provide guidance and help smooth the bumps that her mom had negotiated.

Annie’s Project is not just about bookkeeping and planting seed. It is about living on a farm. Annie, born in 1922, was married for 50 years and died in 1997. She faced many pressures… not the least of which was having three generations living under one roof. She faced pressure from family members. Farm prices rose and fell. New regulations and tax rules were imposed. Through it all, Annie kept plugging.

Women who attended a recent Annie’s Project session at Chesapeake College, Wye Mills, Maryland, shared ideas and learned business skills.

Photo by Jenny Rhodes.

Many women fall in love with a farmer and need to learn what farming and farm life are about. Annie, whose own dad was a fireman and ran a concrete plant, had no farm background. Other women grow up in farm families and find themselves running the enterprise when their father or husband dies.

Women who master one skill or another as farm wives or farm managers share their lessons as mentors through Annie’s Project.

“Teaching ladies is much different than teaching men,” Rhodes noted. “Women appreciate the ‘safe haven’ of the Annie’s Project sessions and are more open among themselves.”

Garden State training

New Jersey’s Farm Management Training for Women program evolved out of two focus group meetings with women farmers. Annie’s farm management experiences were shared with 130 women farmers in 2011 via courses in Cape May County, Warren County and Somerset County.

Annie’s Project gives women farmers the tools to help them succeed by focusing on five areas of farm risk: marketing and pricing, production risk, financial management, human and personal risk and legal risk. The course covered various topics including personal finance and business management practices, developing marketing plans, farm transfer and estate planning, using social media, advertising and media outreach, production record keeping and food safety issues.

Participants learn about becoming better risk takers and risk managers in the production, marketing, financial, legal and human resource areas of farming. Topics fostered problem solving, record-keeping, and decision-making skills. At past conferences professors from Rutgers University and farm professionals taught family finances, budgeting and cash flow, important financial documents, farm transfer and estate planning, business planning, understanding farm insurance policies, creating a positive work environment, motivating and retaining employees, leadership assessment and skills, generational issues and action planning.

The Annie’s Project NJ Marketing Conference in late 2014.

Photo by Jeffery Heckman

“Annie’s Project understands the obstacles that women experience,” Przewozny said. “The program is tailored to help women understand how to overcome some of those obstacles through various models of training.

“I have learned that women are very capable of running their own farm,” Przewozny said. “I do just as much work on the farm as my husband. I can handle all of the physical aspects; in addition I handle all of the financial records and record keeping. I like the statement, ‘I am woman, hear me roar.’ Well it’s about time women roar a little louder in the farming community.”

The focus of the New Jersey program is problem solving, record-keeping, and decision-making skills for women farmers. Professors and farm professionals teach budgeting and cash flow, farm transfer and estate planning, business planning, understanding farm insurance policies, creating a positive work environment, generational issues and action planning.

As elsewhere, New Jersey’s program caught fire. In 2012, courses were held in Cumberland, Burlington, and again in Somerset Counties. The Garden State programs got quite specific as Annie’s Project taught a six-week Greenhouse Growers Course.

Also, “there is a networking component that has been great,” Brumfield said. Keeping the groups fairly small (under 30 people) helps with this.

Keep plugging away

To keep the farm solvent, Annie’s husband worked off-farm while she milked cows and kept an egg route in nearby Chicago. When it became painfully obvious that chickens and turkeys were not going to pay the bills, she learned to market corn and soybeans. Through it all, she caught flak from family members and from outsiders. She persisted.

Annie’s Project seeks to make it easier on all the other Annie’s coming along – to take her experiences, share them and help women living and working on farms.

Program funding is tough. “We will definitely offer more classes,” Brumfield said. Videographer Jeffrey Heckman filmed many sessions, which can be viewed as webinars.

It was 15 years ago that MidAtlantic Women In Agriculture got started. Today, it is the umbrella over Annie’s Project. Next year, the Women in Ag Conference will be held at Dover Downs in Dover, Delaware, February 10-11. There are Annie’s Project Facebook and Pinterest sites. Maryland-Delaware does its Wednesday Webinar for the project on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month.

Given the value received (about $250 per attendee) and contacts made, the cost of participating in an Annie’s Project course is nominal, often $25 to $75. Typically, the Northeast Risk Management Grant Program supports the Project.

Przewozny still keeps in touch with the women she met through Annie’s Project five years ago. “I follow what is happening in other counties through Facebook. I am on the mailing list to receive all information sent out. I stay in touch because it is so rewarding to work with other women and to hear how they handle certain situations,” she added. See additional information about Przewozny and Annie’s Project on:

“We’re planning to offer Annie’s Project I next spring (2016),” Sciabarrasi, who runs the New Hampshire program with co-leader Kelly McAdam, said. “Given our small state/staff size, we’ll probably limit our offerings to one a year.”

Schmidt dubs herself “The Foodie Farmer” on Facebook and certainly is no slouch when it comes to ag. She stays active via Annie’s Project Facebook page, newsletters and other offerings. “Social media is my go-to way of keeping up with what’s going on where in agriculture for just about everything,” Schmidt said.

Annie’s Project NJ also inspired other business management training. “I worked with our equine team to offer a similar course for equine folks, but this was not limited to just women,” Brumfield said of the program, which focused on more than equine topics. The end goal was to have a business plan.

“I would tell (any woman) to join the program,” Przewozny said. “The knowledge you gain from Annie’s Project is invaluable and instrumental in creating a strong foundation of resources and networking.”

Finn agreed. “Annie’s Project is an experience you don’t want to let pass by,” she says. “You will learn, network and discuss with women who have a passion for agriculture and similar trials and tribulations.”

Cover Photo by Remsberg Inc.