AMES, Iowa – When her husband passed in 2000 from complications with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Jean Driscoll found herself stepping up in some big ways to operate the family farm.
A swine and crop producer from Cedar County, Driscoll had been involved with the farm from the start, working with her husband, the late Dennis "George" Driscoll, on barn chores, recordkeeping and occasionally some fieldwork.
His death at age 53 made her knowledge of the farm all the more important, and she quickly found herself taking on more responsibility, working alongside her sons, Tom and Sean.
“When George passed, I wasn’t totally blindsided because I had already worked closely with him on so many things, but there were areas where I wanted to learn more,” said Driscoll. “A few years after his death, I was offered an educational opportunity to learn more and improve my knowledge.”
That opportunity was “Annie’s Project,” an 18-hour farm business management course that empowers women in agriculture to be successful with farm finances, human resources, legal issues, marketing and agricultural production.
In its 20-year history, more than 19,000 people have completed Annie’s Project courses, in 38 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In Iowa, more than 128 Annie’s Project courses have empowered 2,200 women in agriculture.
Driscoll had an advantage in that she already knew most of the ins-and-outs of her family’s farm, including the financial numbers and records. She also had a strong relationship with extension, having served on the extension council for many years. Annie’s Project, which she completed in 2007 with her daughter, Lori Crock, still helped take her farm knowledge to a new level.
“At the time, women like ourselves were becoming more involved with ag, and this seemed like a great opportunity,” said Driscoll. “We covered topics that were important at the time and that are still important, like financial balance sheets, conservation programs, marketing, women land ownership and rental agreements.”
Driscoll and her daughter both actively farm today, on two separate farms near Mechanicsville, Iowa. The elder Driscoll will turn 76 in March, and although the farm has changed over the past couple decades, she is still involved full-time with caring for feeder pigs and fieldwork, as well as recordkeeping.
Today, Jean Driscoll and her sons no-till about 1,300 acres and finish roughly 6,500 pigs a year. During planting season, she operates the seed tender, and during harvest she hauls grain from the fields.
Driscoll encourages other women who might be thinking about the Annie’s Project course to get involved. No matter what their level of farm knowledge may be, she said participants will expand their knowledge, in ways that will help themselves and their families.
“I would definitely encourage other women to go through this. You’re never too young to learn and there is always something new to learn,” she said.
Driscoll has continued to use the knowledge she acquired from working with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and was honored to be recognized in 2016 as one of Iowa State’s first Women Impacting Agriculture awardees. She explains her farm and the many improvements she’s made in a YouTube video posted the same year.
Although Driscoll already had a good understanding of her farm, not all Annie’s Project participants are as fortunate. For some, the classes are the first significant exposure women have to what’s involved with running a farm.
Kelvin Leibold, a farm management specialist with ISU Extension and Outreach, has been involved with the program in Iowa and nationally since its early years. In the beginning, he said many women were working off-farm jobs, partly stemming from the farm crisis of the 1980s, and many women were not as involved with the day-to-day operations as their spouses.
“In many cases, they (women) became distanced from the farm and didn’t always have time to get involved with the financial matters and the lenders,” said Leibold. “I saw a lot of stress and a lack of understanding that Annie’s Project helped to overcome. As an educator, I wanted women in my audience, and Annie’s provided a safe haven for this to happen.”
The very first Annie’s Project was offered in Illinois in 2003, to a class of 10 participants. The program was the vision of Ruth Hambleton, a University of Illinois extension educator, who modeled the program after the real-life success of her mother, the late Annette Kohlhagen Fleck.
Annie was a farm woman who grew up in a small town in northern Illinois and married a farmer in 1947. She helped navigate her family’s farm through challenging times by using good recordkeeping, sound decision making, and determination in the face of adversity. Ruth named the program in her mother’s honor and it quickly caught the interest of other states. It was first offered in Iowa in 2004, by the late Bob Wells, a farm management specialist with ISU Extension and Outreach.
Wells, who lived and worked in eastern Iowa, said in a video in 2011 that Annie’s Project “gave women the chance to really empower themselves with the knowledge that they are not alone in this world. There are other farm women in their neighborhood, in their area and their state that face the same problems every day that they do.”
Wells worked with Hambleton and other colleagues in extension to expand the program across the country, including Tim Eggers, past farm management specialist, Kelvin Leibold, and Madeline Schultz, current president of the national Annie’s Project board of directors and program manager for Women in Ag at Iowa State. The team helped advise the national organization for many years and obtained grant support from the United States Department of Agriculture.
“Iowa has been a leader in the development of Annie’s Project as a national program and nonprofit organization,” said Schultz. “Here in Iowa, Annie’s Project continues to be a very strong program and our farm management team members see the positive impacts it makes for Iowa women in agriculture.”
Ruth Hambleton serves the national board as treasurer and said she has no doubt her mother would be proud of what the program has become.
“She’d be very flattered that Annie’s project is patterned after her and I know she’s looking down from heaven, just really pleased to see all that is going on,” Hambleton said.
(The second story in this series will focus on the national influence of Annie’s project, from the years 2009-2015. Follow the ISU Extension and Outreach news site for the second story, in late spring.)
- Learn more about Annie’s Project courses and other opportunities for women in agriculture in Iowa by visiting the Women in Ag program website with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.
- Learn more about the national organization and events being held across the country on the national Annie’s Project website.