Innovative Farm Business Curriculum Propels New Generation of Female Farmers
June 29, 2016 | Abbie Stutzer
For generations, the face of farming in America has been the face of a sun-baked, hard-working man. Even with record growth in the number of female farmers, men still make up approximately 70 percent of primary and secondary farm operators, creating a collision course between entrenched gender biases and taboos and the realities of farming’s changing demographics.
Annie’s Project, founded in 2003 by University of Illinois Extension educator Ruth Hambleton, is one organization pushing to help the new generation of female farmers and ranchers over those hurdles to access the tools they need to be competent, successful growers, farm business managers, and business partners. The 18-hour curriculum combines an introduction to the five traditional risk areas of farming–farm risk management, production, marketing, legal, and financial and human resources–with lessons learned by Hambleton in more than two decades of field support.
“In my first 25 years of extension work, I listened to the many concerns and requests that farm women had,” Hambleton says.
The program also draws on lessons and perspective gleaned from Hambleton’s mother (and the project’s namesake), Annette Kohlhagen Fleck, who lived out her own journey to become an active partner in a farm business.
“As a farm woman myself, raised on a farm by a woman very involved in the operation and financial management of the farm, I developed the passion to work with farm women late in my extension career,” Hambleton says. “What evolved was a methodology to teach women in a non-judging and educationally-dynamic environment.”
The first Annie’s Project class of 10 women met at Kaskaskia Community College in Centralia, Illinois in February of 2003, funded by a grant from the USDA meant to create a program for underserved audiences. Motivated by the “magical” results of the initial class, Hambleton gathered with other extension educators working with female farmers at a conference that spring. There she met Bob Wells, an educator from Iowa, who thought the Annie’s Project program had merit and could be replicated in Iowa and Missouri.
On the strength of that kind of interest, Annie’s Project has evolved into a registered non-profit offering programs in 31 states. Despite its ever-increasing scale and mission, the organization still keeps classes under 25 people and dedicates at least half of each class to discussion.
“Agriculture is very diverse within a state, and from state to state, region to region,” Hambleton says. “What is unique about our program is the adaptability that allows each class location to really focus on agricultural topics that are relevant to farm and ranch women in that area. Our approach is to provide research-based education, using a combination of educators and local agribusiness women and men as presenters. With this methodology, we introduce women to a team of risk managers they can call on long after the class is over.”
As the organization grows, Hambleton is looking to find a balance between the pace of expansion and resources, such as adequate funding and appropriate host sites. The project’s current model depends heavily on grants and in-kind donations to cover the $300-per-participant programming cost. Hambleton is also exploring options like online platform and weekend classes to improve accessibility beyond geographic barriers. However, these challenges, like the challenges facing female farmers, are most likely to be overcome through the strength of collective movement.
“As long as there is a demand by farm and ranch women for an educational program like Annie’s Project, we will deliver that education and experience to our standards,” Hambleton says. “[The] board is developing a comprehensive strategic plan to underwrite classes as well as the infrastructure to support the rapid growth of the organization.”
In five years, Hambleton hopes the program will have enough funding to at least be self-sufficient, if not also expand to all 50 states and Canada.
“As the role of women in farming and ranching changes, APEFW is prepared to develop, implement, and evaluate new programs to meet these needs,” she says. “I view APEFW as an ever-evolving organization. In 10 years, I hope that the methodology employed in the Annie’s Project classes continues to foster a network of promoting the well-being of women in agriculture throughout the world.”