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ND revives farm management program for women

Women in the McIntosh County Annie's Project class take notes during the final night of the program on April 4, 2018, in Ashley, N.D. Jenny Schlecht / Forum News Service1 / 8
Dawn Goehring, right, plans to get more involved on the family farm when her family moves onto it soon. Photo taken April 4, 2018, in Ashley, N.D. Jenny Schlecht / Forum News Service2 / 8
McIntosh County women in Annie's Project listen to a guest speaker talking about accounting and bookkeeping on April 4, 2018, in Ashley, N.D. Jenny Schlecht / Forum News Service3 / 8
Eighteen women graduated on April 4, 2018, from Annie's Project in McIntosh County. Also pictured is McIntosh County Extension Agent Crystal Schaunaman, far right in the back row. Special to Forum News Service4 / 8
Tori Gross, third from right, hopes to take over bookkeeping and marketing tasks on the family farm. Photo taken April 4, 2018, in Ashley, N.D. Jenny Schlecht / Forum News Service5 / 8
Crystal Schaunaman is the McIntosh County Extension Agent and the North Dakota coordinator for Annie's Project. Photo taken April 4, 2018, in Ashley, N.D. Jenny Schlecht / Forum News Service6 / 8
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Rose Pfeifer, left, has been actively involved in the family farm for about eight years, but she says she still has more to learn and hopes to put the lessons from Annie's Project to work. Photo taken April 4, 2018, in Ashley, N.D. Jenny Schlecht / Forum News Service8 / 8

ASHLEY, N.D. — Tori Gross sat in the McIntosh County Courthouse, scrolling through the markets on her phone. Soybeans were down, she noted.

Months earlier, Gross wouldn't have had an app on her phone to check the markets, and, even if she had, she may not have understood what it was telling her.

But that was before Gross and 17 other women in McIntosh County graduated April 4 from Annie's Project, a farm management program for women that has been reintroduced in North Dakota after an absence of several years.

Crystal Schaunaman, McIntosh County Extension Agent and the North Dakota coordinator for Annie's Project, said the national program aims to empower women to be better business partners on farms or ranches. The program teaches lessons on five risk areas: financial, human resources, legal, production and marketing.

North Dakota counties offered Annie's Project for multiple years but stopped in 2013 amid waning attendance, Schaunaman said. As a few years went by, people started asking counties to offer it again, leading to a revived and updated Annie's Project being offered on a pilot basis in the fall of 2016 and offered in numerous counties throughout 2017 and 2018.

Why it works

Annie's Project allows women to learn with other women, provides networking opportunities and is held in local communities rather than only in communities with large populations.

Studies have shown that women learn better with other women, Schaunaman said. It's not that they can't learn with men; it's just that being with other women tends to foster more open conversation.

For Heidi Schauer, a McIntosh County participant who lives in Ashley, and whose husband has a grain farm and cattle operation across the border in South Dakota, a class with other women was a key part of her joining. She was a "city kid" raised in an agricultural town in Indiana. She moved to North Dakota after meeting her husband online. As her children grow, she wants to become more active on the farm.

Schauer said she wouldn't have felt as comfortable asking questions and being active in discussions had it been a class of men and women.

Gross would have taken the class even if it had involved men, but she said this was a more comfortable environment.

"It has definitely made me feel more empowered to take it, knowing there's a lot of people in my boat who don't understand simple terminology," she said.

Carie Marshall Moore took Annie's Project in Ransom County in 2013. Now she helps put on the class there, as well as a Women on the Farm workshop. Moore works for the Ransom County Soil Conservation District, and that office works with county extension and Dakota Precision Agriculture to provide farm education, including taking classes to dealerships to discuss equipment. The women-only environment definitely works, she said.

"They're going to ask questions they wouldn't ask at a normal workshop because their husband might be sitting right next to them," Moore said.

Annie's Project also gives women a chance to learn from and connect with other farm women in their area. Schaunaman said women tend to "bond really quickly."

Diane McDonald farms with her husband near Grand Forks. McDonald had no farm knowledge prior to marrying her husband in 1999.

"Had somebody told me even 25 years ago I'd be married to a farmer and know how to (artificially inseminate) cows, drive a tractor, run the combine, I would have asked them if they had fallen and hit their head," she said.

McDonald and a friend enrolled in Annie's Project in 2008. It allowed her to learn from other women and hear about their operations, she said.

"It's been nice to meet other farm wives," Schauer said. 

Annie's Project is offered locally and offers local information. Rather than people having to drive to larger communities, a rural county, like McIntosh, can offer substantial education close to home.

"This was just convenient," said Dawn Goehring, a McIntosh County participant who works part-time for a local auctioneer and otherwise is a stay-at-home mom in Ashley. She hasn't been overly involved in the farm, but she expects that will change as they prepare to move to the farm and her children get older. Taking a class offered locally fit better into her schedule than going elsewhere.

Moore said the knowledge offered in the class also is local, so participants don't have to wade through information about crops and land rents that don't pertain to them.

Where to use the knowledge

McDonald remembers former Grand Forks County Extension Agent Willie Huot saying during her time in Annie's Project, that women make better marketers because they lack the sentimental attachment to crops and livestock that some men have. True to that, many of the women in the McIntosh County class plan to assume that mantle going forward.

Gross, who didn't grow up on a farm, now farms with her husband from near Kintyre, N.D., to the South Dakota border. Her father-in-law once did the bookwork and marketing, and as her husband takes the reins, he wants her to take those responsibilities. He asked her to take Annie's Project after reading about it, and Gross now also has taken a soybean marketing class in Fargo.

Goehring's husband also would like help with marketing their cattle, barley, wheat and soybeans.

Rose Pfeifer ranches with her husband southeast of Ashley. They've been married 17 years, and she's been "heavily involved" in the operation for the past eight. She already does the bookkeeping and accounting but plans to do more of the marketing as well. The Pfeifers are changing to April-May calving from February-March calving, which will mean "a whole new game" for calf marketing.

McDonald said Annie's Project gave her confidence to become more involved in marketing, as well as other aspects of the farm and ranch. She's now the national president of Women Involved in Farm Economics and makes annual trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby on behalf of the agriculture industry.

Gross said the lessons learned from Annie's Project have been expansive — estate planning, crop insurance policies, markets, bookkeeping and more. She can see the practical applications to the farm for the future, as well as in communicating with her husband.

"I don't feel like he is just kind of talking to a wall," she said. "I feel like I have a feedback now and a better understanding."

Though she's far from new to the farm, Pfeifer said the lessons in Annie's Project are valuable to anyone.

"If you ever think you've learned it all, you're finished," she said.

Participants in Annie's Project past and present urge other farm women, no matter their level of understanding, to take the class. Schaunaman said there is a cost to attend, but participants get binders and flash drives of information, classroom instruction, networking and often meals out of the cost. Plus, local businesses often help defray the costs.

"I don't think anyone has ever said it wasn't worth every single penny and more," she said.

More about Annie's Project

Annie's Project is named for Annette Kohlhagen Fleck, an Illinois woman who married a farmer in 1947. According to a history on the Annie's Project website, Fleck became an active partner in the farm, and her diligent work and record keeping helped her family make sound financial decisions and stay afloat. Many of the lessons taught in Annie's Project were inspired by Fleck's experiences.

For more information and to find upcoming classes, visit www.anniesproject.org.

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