Agriculture & Natural Resources

Across institutions and state lines, Annie’s Project delivers

When it comes to delivering useful, impactful programs for area farmers, Cooperative Extension educators typically won’t allow anything as formal as a state boundary or land grant affiliation to get in the way of empowering, engaging and educating their audiences.

Annie’s Project is one example of how the University of Delaware and University of Maryland Cooperative Extension collaborate to deliver quality programs to the public. Now in its 10th year, Annie’s Project  alumni are nearing the 700 mark.

A national program originally designed to deliver risk management information to farm women, Annie’s Project is currently taught across 33 states and continues to evolve, making a difference to adults involved in managing a family farm.  Adopted by the University of Maryland in 2008, co-coordinators Jenny Rhodes, an extension agent in Queen Anne’s County and Shannon Dill, extension agent in Talbot County, reached out in 2010 to Tracy Wootten of the University of Delaware to form a coalition with a goal to  bridge boundaries, share resources, expanded content, and tailor the talent so that future offerings meet the needs of Delmarva Peninsula farm families. The trio is also actively involved in planning outreach programs for a larger, regional agriculture coalition known as the MidAtlantic Women in Agriculture.

“We love working together for a common cause to Educate, Engage and Empower women in agriculture and a few men too,” said Jenny Rhodes. ” Annie’s Project is one of my favorite programs. No state lines for us!”

On November 27th,  Annie’s Project  added 35 new alumni.  At their graduation ceremony at UD’s Carvel Research and Education Center in Georgetown, the class members shared their most meaningful takeaways from the six-week course.

Group picture of Annie's Project graduates Class
Annie’s Project Class of 2018 Poultry Session on graduation day, joined by Extension staff from UD and UMD. Some graduates not present for photo.

Many of the sessions were taught by extension staff from the University of Delaware and University of Maryland, but also included representation from industry, government, and the financial and insurance sectors. Before each session, attendees dined together, creating an informal atmosphere conducive to building relationships and networking.

The Annie’s Project curricula covers five areas of risk management — production, marketing, financial, legal risk and human resources. While prior year sessions catered to a general agriculture audience, extension educators solicited feedback and by request, offer sessions around specific topics such as equine businesses, when needed. For the Class of 2018,  it was all about poultry, with the classes designed to assist new, existing and potential poultry growers.

Lori O’Connell attended the very first session in 2008 and came back for a 10-year refresher. “Watching this program over the last 10 years, the biggest thing I see this time was the amount of information that was covered.” O’Connell said.

“From the very beginning all the way through, covering diseases, houses, ventilation and everything in between. It is not just the poultry topics. Everyone here has made friends with other people and that is a great part of our ag community.”

The value of networking was one of the most noted benefits cited by graduates as they accepted their certificates.

Charlotte Magee and her husband Christopher attended the sessions together and although they are not raising poultry currently, appreciated the value in all of the topics covered. “I have a whole new respect for poultry farmers. I know for anyone in ag, it is a really rough road,” Magee said. “Coming to this class and listening to all of the speakers, there is so much information. Also, this class allowed us to network with other farmers who do other things.”

“This has been a wonderful experience of sharing,” added Patricia Hastings. Hastings and her husband recently built four houses and enthusiastically soaked up the information.

“My biggest “aha” moment was don’t stagnate, don’t think you’ve learned something and then just be okay with it. Keep asking questions, keep trying to figure out how to make things better.”

Many graduates were part of a pair — a father and son, mother and daughter duos, some husband and wife teams, and a few who came alone, but returned home after each session sharing what they learned with spouses or partners.

“There is a lot of good advice here,” said Megan Rue. Rue and her fiance recently bought a four-house farm in July and are on their second flock. “I go back and quiz my fiance!”

Lisa Gordy operates four big houses along with her husband and daughter. She placed a high value on the broad spectrum of financial education she received.  She joked that her husband is the primary chicken tender. “So I was taking stuff home to my him and asking, ‘hey are we doing this?'” Gordy added.  “Now I want him to come here!”

Keeping up with how the industry has changed, especially with technology, served as a revelation for many who had connections in the past from parents or grandparents who raised poultry. Some attendees  in the process of modernizing older homes were appreciative of the volume of resources available.  “I didn’t know all this was out there” was a common reaction.

Grower John Briggs owns two older poultry homes. “They’re a challenge pretty much all the time now. They were not updated,” Briggs shared. “This program taught us a lot about modernizing our ventilation and our lighting, so we’ve actually seen a lot of improvements already.”

Jenny Rhodes, John Briggs, Tracy Wootten at Annie's Project graduation
Grower John Briggs operates two older poultry houses. “I’ve seen a lot of improvements” he says of Annie’s Project. With Briggs left to right are Jenny Rhodes and Tracy Wootten

David Dill and his wife Ethel returned to the industry after a long hiatus.  They now own two, two-year old chicken houses. Dill was astonished at the changes he found in the industry.  “I had a learning curve like a rocket launch and I am still learning,” Dill remarked. “I found this class very informative. If you have any doubt in your mind, reach out. When I got this equipment I didn’t know anything about it and I was just overwhelmed.”

The value of networking is demonstrated to the class by example. Annie’s Project succeeds in large part through the coordination of meaningful relationships cultivated across state lines.  Extension’s mission to extend  knowledge and change lives is realized by offering the class an array of diverse topics and industry expert to lead sessions.

“It’s great it is to work with my colleagues who are so passionate about agriculture and the people in the industry,” Wootten said. “Participants can feel the sincerity and willingness to help them better their family business.  Of course it is great to work with others with the same passion and goals.”

In addition to Wootten, representing UD as instructors were Georgie Cartanza, state poultry agent, Sydney Young Riggi, extension nutrient management agent, Maria Pippidis, family and consumer science educator, and Dr. Dan Bautista, director of Lasher Laboratory. UMD’s team included Rhodes, Dill along with Jon Moyle, poultry specialist, and Paul Goeringer, extension legal specialist. Industry representatives included Charlie Gray, Nationwide Insurance, Amy Syster, Chemtrade Solutions, Stacey Warner, loan officer at MidAtlantic Farm Credit, Timothy Garrahan, Farm Bill specialist at the NRCS, Robin Talley and Colleen Reed from the Farm Service Agency, and Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc. sent  two guest presenters; Holly Porter, assistant executive director, and James Passwaters, vegetative buffer coordinator.

Keeping the program fresh and relative to what farm families need is an important consideration. A deep bench of experts allows the program to be flexible. “The ability to pool resources and expertise is a huge benefit that we can provide participants,” said co-coordinator Shannon Dill.

Judging by her classmates reaction, Patricia Hastings echoed what many felt on graduation night. “I have been all over the extension web pages. Your eye changes so much once it is better educated. I am actually sad this is over.”

How has Annie’s Project made a difference? Listen to some of our recent graduates offer testimonials. Watch the video:

Photos and article: Michele Walfred