AMES, Iowa – When she graduated from Iowa State University in 2020 with a degree in agricultural business, Natalie (Eick) Paino already knew quite a bit about running a business.
She grew up on her family’s dairy farm in northeast Iowa, just outside the town of Plainfield, where she and her family still farm today.
During her four years of study, she learned about the science of entrepreneurship, risk management, accounting and record keeping. By the start of her senior year, she had already started her own business, making and selling her own brand of ice cream under the name Hightail Delivery.
But even with all of her education and experience, Paino, 22, wanted to learn more and connect with people in the same shoes as she found herself.
The solution she found was Annie’s Project – an 18-hour farm business management course that empowers women in agriculture to be successful through education, networks and resources. The course covers farm finances, human resources, legal issues, marketing and agricultural production.
Continuing her education
Paino completed Annie’s Project in 2022, just two years after she earned her college degree and three years after starting her own business.
“It was a great review and a great way to take some of those things I had learned at the university and actually apply them to the farm,” said Paino. “Sometimes those concepts seem pretty high-level and academic when you are a student, but then when you connect with people in the industry, it resonates and makes more sense.”
Paino's ice cream business continues to grow and expand. It began inside an assisted-living facility where her late-grandmother was staying. There was a demand for good ice cream, and the facility offered her space to house and operate her processing equipment.
Today, she makes a dozen flavors of ice cream and she recently purchased dairy processing equipment, which will allow her to process her own ice cream and cheese curds on the farm in the near future.
Paino is adding value to her parent’s dairy farm. Together, Terry and Kelly Eick and their daughter produce ice cream, milk over 50 head of Holsteins at White Gold Dairy, and grow about 1,000 acres of crops.
The Annie’s Project that Paino completed in 2022 was actually her second experience with the program. In 2017, when she was still in high school, her mother, Kelly Eick, completed the program. The two rode together to many of the sessions, learning and discussing lessons along the way.
Kelly Eick said she took Annie’s because she wanted to know more about the business side of farming and to be prepared for the future.
“Annie’s gave me the kick-in-the-pants motivation to become more involved with the business of the farm and estate planning decisions,” said Kelly Eick. “It benefited Natalie and me both, my husband, Terry, and the whole farm.”
The Eicks’ experience has been replicated many times in the 20-year history of Annie’s, with women in agriculture gaining new insight and knowledge that continues to improve their operations.
Alexis Stevens, a farm management specialist with the Farm Management Team at Iowa State, offered her first Annie’s Project in February and March of 2023. In her first offering, there were three mother-daughter pairs, and a wide range of agricultural backgrounds.
Stevens said she was nervous about offering Annie’s Project in the beginning, because of the amount of work it takes to line up speakers and secure an audience of participants. After about the second session, she could tell it was going to be a success.
“I was seeing the women building friendships and relationships and it was like 9 p.m. and no one wanted to go home,” said Stevens. “That’s when you know things are going well, when they’re having so much fun that they want to stay and talk with each other.”
The networking is a key part of what makes Annie’s work.
“I don’t think I could put a price tag on it,” said Stevens. “Annie’s and the time spent in the sessions opens the door to everything else for these women. Pretty soon they’re asking what else they can learn and then they’re inviting each other over to their own farms to learn different things. That is a million-dollar result.”
With 20 years of success, Annie’s Project is considered a core program for the 14-member Farm Management Team.
Chad Hart, professor of economics and state farm management team leader at Iowa State, said Annie’s Project has been successful because it reaches women in the way they learn best – through discussion and interactivity.
“With our female clientele, what we find and what science has shown us is that they’re searching for more group discussion, more interactivity, and also an audience that is concentrated on females,” said Hart. “What Annie’s did was force our team to think about the subjects we wanted to teach and come up with different educational tools and platforms to approach those same issues.”
Hart said the program continues to evolve as the needs and interests of women in agriculture evolve.
“This really is a client-driven program,” he said. “The participants make it easy on the planners because we don’t have to guess what they want – they tell us and we respond.”
The Eicks are a prime example. Not only has Natalie taken the program twice, but she later completed other extension programs for women, such as Boots in the Barn. She hopes to take the Women Managing Farmland and Women Marketing Grain farm management courses in the future.
Annie’s project helped Paino become more involved with the family farm. She developed a better understanding of how to work with people such as lenders, insurers and farm employees. She gained insights on the legal side of farming.
“My dad (Terry) is the leader of this farm, but my mother and I have a lot to do with what goes on every day,” said Paino. “Annie’s helped us to be more involved and more informed about the decisions we make.”
Annie’s Project is a women-centered program that reaches the whole family. “Many times, women go home and teach their husband something they learned in the class,” said Stevens. “The husbands benefit from that discussion and to be honest, the husbands sometimes learn things from their wives that they did not know before or would be embarrassed to admit they didn’t know.”
Hart said the participants “share outwardly and inwardly,” meaning they share what they learned with their friends and family, and in turn bring back to the class what they learned from their social circles.
“There is sort of an ebb-and-flow of sharing and discussion, and it’s fascinating to watch how that influences the breadth and depth of each session,” he said.
Oftentimes, the extension professionals who offer Annie’s Project find themselves learning new things, alongside the class participants.
Such was the case for Jade Schneider, the extension director for ISU Extension and Outreach in Delaware County. She first offered Annie’s Project in 2018 with Melissa O’Rourke, farm and agribusiness management specialist. This was about the same time that she and her husband, Logan, were returning to the farm.
“I knew that I wanted to do more women in ag programs myself, and the fact that I got to learn along with the participants was a real bonus,” said Schneider.
The response from the community was positive, and the county has since offered several extension programs for women in agriculture. Those include programs like Managing for Today and Tomorrow farm transition course, Women Managing Farmland, and Women Planning Ag Businesses. This summer Delaware County is offering Agronomy in the Field though the extension crops team.
“Offering Annie’s allowed us to gauge the interest level in other programs and respond accordingly,” Schneider said. “Annie’s provided us with a really good baseline to start with, and then we gained a huge following going forward.”
*** (Our final installment in this series will feature the 10 Annie's-inspired programs offered by ISU Extension and Outreach. Previously published stories in this series include Annie's Project: Historic program for Iowa farm women and Annie's Project Leads to National Reach, Local Impact.)
Shareable photos: 1. Natalie Paino with calf. 2. Natalie Paino with her husband, Marquise, and her parents, Kelly and Terry Eick. (photo courtesy of Iowa Rep. Shannon Latham). 3. Kelvin Leibold, farm management specialist with ISU Extension and Outreach. 4. Natalie Paino standing in front of her family's dairy barn.