Farming is a man’s world,but the number of women farmers is on the rise, says Jenny Carleo of Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Cape May County and New Jersey head of Annie’s Project, a national initiative that seeks to educate, support, and connect female farmers.

“You’re dealing with a whole structure that is male dominated, and there are different elements in that infrastructure: farmers, supply dealers, feed stores. Some of the good ol’ boy system — that’s hard to take,” says Carleo, quoting Berneta Gable, a woman farmer.

Carleo is organizing a day-long Annie’s Project New Jersey “Farm Women Conference” in three locations around the state. One takes place Thursday, February 21, at 9 a.m. at the Mercer County Community College Conference Center.

The same conference will be held Wednesday, February 20, at Cumberland County College and on Friday, February 22, at Drew University. Cost: $25. Register online at njfarmwomenconference.eventbrite.com. Call 609-465-5115 for more information.

Throughout the United States, about 30 percent of farmers were women in 2007, a 19 percent increase in just five years. They make much less than their male counterparts — $36,000 a year versus $150,671 — and farm less than half the acreage per capita, yet the women are more likely to own their own land.

In New Jersey there are about 2,261 women-operated farms, about one-fifth of the total number of farms in the state. Their farms average 29 acres and produce, on average, $22,170 a year in products, way below the state average of $95,584. (See U.S. 1’s Women In Business Issue, February 6.)

Women farmers may have a long way to go, but Carleo says that a growing number of women are eager to start on the journey. “A lot of new farmers are women,” she says. “This is a change from the past.” Many women become farmers by marrying into the business or by taking over when a father or spouse is unable to continue to run a farm, but more and more Carleo is seeing women who are new to the field.

“They have a dream,” says Carleo. “They want to raise their kids on a farm, teach them about farming and about hard work, and then pass the farm along to them. They have that goal, but they don’t know how to get there.”

That is where Annie’s Project comes in. Founded by Ruth Fleck Hambleton, a farmer and Illinois Extension agent, the organization honors her mother, Annie Fleck, who brought extensive record keeping, statistical observation, and risk management to her small family farm, thereby creating a large, prosperous farming operation, while at the same time raising four kids.

Annie’s Project seeks to teach those business skills to a new generation of women farmers. It also works to connect these farmers with each other and with experts in all phases of farm management.

Rutgers Cooperative Extension has won grants from the U.S. Agriculture Department to give Annie’s Project help to New Jersey’s farmers for several years. At first, says Carleo, instruction was given in the evenings over a period of six or seven weeks. But many farmers, a notoriously busy lot, were unable to attend, so she came up with the idea of an intensive full-day workshop that will have instruction on creating a general business plan, fine-tuning a financial business plan, and creating a business succession plan.

Make a business plan. “Most farmers don’t have business plans,” says Carleo. But they should. For one thing, she says, it’s difficult to get financing without one. More broadly, it’s hard to even get started without the direction that a good business plan provides.

“The biggest thing,” says Carleo, “is that people tend to have scattered ideas. They want to do too many things.” Women will tell her that they want to grow vegetables, have some animals, make wine. It’s generally too much. “Start small. We always tell farmers to start small,” she says. “You need a niche so that you don’t have too many competitors.”

Having a dream is a whole lot different from having a well thought-out business plans. “If people can get this dream down on paper, they can see their mistakes — without making them with their money.”

An essential key to the plan is the identification of a market. “You don’t start with the crop you are going to grow,” says Carleo. “You start with your customer. Who are you going to sell to? What exactly do they want?”

During the workshop, there will be a 20 to 30-minute talk on how to make a business plan and then each participant will work on one with help from professionals. “At the end of the workshop everyone should have a working draft,” says Carleo.

Fine-tune finances. A second workshop is geared toward farmers who already have a business plan, but don’t yet have all the elements of a financial plan. As is true in every business, finance is “really the heart of the business plan,” says Carleo. More than just money, finance involves how to craft a sound insurance plan and how to deal with regulations, as well as how to plan for capital based on a crop’s rate of growth.

As an example, Carleo points out that orchard and winery owners need to know that “it takes a long time to get from a baby plant to a mature plant.” Therefore, they may well need far more capital to sustain themselves and their operations than a farmer who plans to grow basil or tomatoes will need.

Would-be winery owners also need to be aware that they will pile up “tremendous” legal fees as they navigate state regulations, which, says Carleo, are “really strict.”

Keeping the farm in the family. A third workshop deals with the tricky task of making sure that the family farm stays in the family — and, in fact, remains a farm.

Carleo says that it is all too common to see one of a farmer’s children spend his life working the farm while his siblings pursue other careers. It is also common that upon the farmer’s death the farm has to be sold to settle the estate.

The best way to avoid this situation, she says, is to communicate. No one wants to have the “what happens when I die conversation,” but doing so can ensure that the farmer’s wishes, which often include keeping the farm in the family and away from developers, can be honored.

Carleo did not grow up on a farm, but rather in suburban Nyack, New York. Nevertheless, she says that she has known that she wanted a career in agriculture since she was 15. “Everyone said I was crazy,” she says. But, undeterred, she began her studies in agricultural science at Rutgers (class of 1999) at age 17, spent a year in Puerto Rico on a tropical plant project, returned to Rutgers for a graduate degree in plant biology, and then went to work for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension in 2003.

Her dad, a native of Zanzibar, worked as an electrical engineer for Con Edison in New York City. He and her mother, a teacher, are now retired in Cape May, where they delight in spending time with Carleo and her seven-year-old son, John, a budding hockey player.

A resident of Cape May Court House, Carleo, who keeps farmer’s hours at the Extension, says that, sadly, she just doesn’t have the time to do any farming herself. Among her current projects are plans for the next Annie’s Project workshop. To be held in the summer, it will focus on greenhouse growing techniques.

Despite not being a farmer, Carleo often works with women who “want to raise their kids on the farm, who long to have that experience.” Through Annie’s Project, she is helping that dream come true.

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