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Jenny Schlecht receives her Annie's Project diploma from Alicia Harstad, North Dakota State University Extension agent for Stutsman County. (Sarah Wilson)

Who needs Annie's Project? All farm women

About a year ago, I talked to women involved in Annie's Project, a farm management course for women, for a story in Agweek. That night in McIntosh County, N.D., the class heard from a speaker on bookkeeping and audits. As I gathered my photos and videos, a lightbulb went off in my head.

I needed this.

Since I grew up on a farm and ranch, I went into my marriage to a farmer and rancher with clear eyes. I knew we'd never be a family that eats supper at 5 p.m. sharp or takes weeklong vacations. There would be mud on the rug and a vague smell of manure in the entryway. And I was completely fine with that.

I also knew that I'd need to be involved in the farm. I enjoy helping with cattle and calving, and I've brought meals to the field or barn. I'll even drive tractor from time to time, if I have to.

But in the past few years, it became obvious that our most pressing labor need was someone to ramrod the bookkeeping and paperwork that can become mountainous in a modern farm operation.

Even though I knew it was an important — vital — job, I resisted taking it on. Part of that was that I already have a full-time job and two kids. I wasn't confident that I could make it all work. But a bigger part of it was that I had no idea what to do or where to start.

Since I was 2 years old, my mom has done the books on the farm I grew up on. Every penny is accounted for, and everything gets done to the satisfaction of the accountant and the banker. She had taken accounting classes in high school and was knowledgeable about bookkeeping basics. She also is careful and organized. I was not confident I could fill that kind of role on the farm on which I now live.

Luckily for me, the North Dakota State University Extension agents in my area decided to offer Annie's Project this year.

Since it was developed in memory of a woman who took charge of her family's farm finances and business in order to make it a profitable operation, you can be assured Annie's Project is not some cutesy course that teaches you the difference between a tractor and a combine. It imparts valuable business information.

The six-week course covered topics across the spectrum of managing a farm. We heard from bankers, farm management educators, Extension experts in a variety of topics, accountants, business professionals, agricultural advocates and many more people. We walked away with the ability to talk to bankers, accountants, agronomists and the public, as well as to better communicate with and support the other people on our farms.

We also heard from each other. The women in the class came from a broad range of operations as well as a range of involvement in those operations. Some had little farm background. Some, like me, knew quite a bit about farming but were sorely lacking in management knowledge. Some have been full partners on their farms for years and were able to impart their knowledge to the rest of us.

The coolest thing about the experience probably was meeting other farm women from my community. I'm not the touchy-feely-est person around, but that fellowship was truly energizing, and I look forward to further interaction among the group.

I already feel more comfortable talking over plans and problems with the professionals with whom we deal on farm matters. I've started helping more with bookkeeping and office-work-type tasks. It not only takes something off my husband's overloaded plate but gives him another person with whom to talk through decisions.

Plus, in the coming months, I'll write some articles on topics we learned about — things I might not have realized or thought about prior to taking this class.

Don't get the idea that this course is beneath you if you've been on the farm for years. It really meets you where you are. There is nothing watered down, nothing presented childishly or patronizingly.

If you are a woman with any interest or involvement in agriculture, you should take Annie's Project. Talk to your Extension agent about when or if it is going to be offered in your area.