By RICK A. RICHARDS
WARSAW, Ind. — Maintaining a successful farm requires lots of planning, from the kinds of seed and fertilizer to use at spring planting to the storage requirements needed at fall harvest. There is one kind of planning that’s just as necessary, but frequently ignored by farmers – estate planning.
It’s a void the National Annie’s Project wants to fill. Kelly Heckaman, a Purdue University extension specialist for Kosciusko County in Warsaw, has been involved in the National Annie’s Project since it was first offered in Indiana in 2005.
She said the program is in 31 states and last year, Indiana received a grant to offer a five-week course aimed specifically at farm estate planning, “Managing for Today and Tomorrow.” Along with Kosciusko County, the extension offices in Elkhart, Marshall and St. Joseph counties are sponsoring the program.
Heckaman said plans are under way to hold a similar program in southern Indiana later this year, but no details have been announced.
The northern Indiana program will be held once a week at the Nappanee Public Library from Feb. 26-March 26. She said the goal is to provide farm women with basic skills in succession, business, estate and retirement planning.
“Women really appreciate the project,” said Heckaman, who serves as the Indiana coordinator for the National Annie’s Project. She said it was created because few women attended traditional agricultural meetings hosted by the extension service and other organizations.
“The feedback we got was that women told us they never felt completely comfortable in a meeting like that in a room full of men,” said Heckaman. “We’re not really offering anything different in the meetings than we would normally do, but we’re doing it in a way in which women feel more comfortable.”
The National Annie’s Project is named after Annette Fleck, an Illinois farm woman who died in 1997 at the age of 75. She grew up in a small northern Illinois town, married a farmer and spent her life learning how to be a partner with her husband on the farm.
Over the years, she was challenged by family pressures, difficult market decisions, increasingly complex regulations and economic ups and downs. Through it all, she sacrificed for the good of the farm. Fleck became a farm manager of sorts, keeping the farm’s records. She milked cows and had an egg route while her husband took an off-farm job. She became the farm’s key decision-maker, pushing it into dairy and raising turkeys.
One of her daughters, Ruth, married a farmer and went to work for the University of Illinois extension service. In honor of her mother, she started the National Annie’s Project to help women better understand farming. The Project recognizes not all women who marry farmers have a farm background and it’s important they learn what’s involved in running a successful operation.
“We realize that Mom, especially a farm mom, is the emotional center point. Sons and daughters come to Mom for support and it’s up to her to help things run smoothly on the farm,” said Heckaman. “The reason this is so important now is that the farm population is getting older and we need to prepare younger people to step in and run our farms.
“We need to give them the skills to be successful because if they’re poorly prepared, the successors who step into successful farms will fail. It’s important that everyone learn to work together as a family.”
She said the goal of the National Annie’s Project is to prepare women for challenges for which they’d never trained.
“We all think we’ll live forever, so we never get around to training anyone to take over for us. After we’re gone, it’s too late for others to ask where things are,” said Heckaman, adding that frequently, farm operators store information in their head instead of making it easily accessible to others.
“Some people are uncomfortable with that, so at the very least, you need to create what we call a Code Red Notebook. That’s a notebook of information of seed and fertilizer suppliers, land lease information, contact information for repair and equipment services.”
Even if a succession plan isn’t put in place, she explained the Code Red Notebook is a necessity. She said farming is a dangerous business and information to continue operating the farm needs to be readily accessible in case there is an accident or illness incapacitates the farmer. “The key,” said Heckaman, “is communication.”
The National Annie’s Project is set up to get people talking about things they don’t like to discuss – death and serious injury: “The mother is one of the most active people on the farm and we need to get her involved in this project.”
For Heckaman, the goal of the Project is close to her heart. Not too long ago, within the span of a month, her mother and grandmother both died. “It was not a pleasant experience. That’s why I got involved with the National Annie’s Project. I don’t want others to go through what I did,” she said.
Sessions at the Nappanee Public Library will be from 6-9 p.m. EST each Tuesday from Feb. 26-March 26. Registration is $50 per person, and includes handouts, a meal and a 260-page resource book. The deadline to register is Feb. 15 at the $50 fee; after that, registration is $60 per person.
Checks should be made payable to Purdue CES Ed Fund and mailed to: Purdue Extension-Kosciusko County, 202 W. Main St., Warsaw, IN 46580. For more information, call Heckaman at 574-372-2340 or e-mail kheckaman@ purdue.edu