Heart of the Farm conferences give farm women necessary tools

Gloria Hafemeister
The Heart of the Farm:Women in Agriculture one-day conferences address the needs of farm women by providing education on farm business and risk management topics.

WISCONSIN DELLS – There is an old saying: “If you need something done, ask a busy mom to do it.”

There are many reasons for that logic but the most important is a woman’s ability to multi-task.

The Heart of the Farm: Women in Agriculture program, started in 2002, addresses the needs of farm women by providing education on pertinent topics connecting them with agricultural resources and creating support networks.

Since the program began, workshops tailored for farm women have improved participants' record-keeping skills, made changes to their healthcare coverage, implemented production changes to their young stock management, helped them to make decisions on their retirement needs and plans and as well as provided guidance for developing business plans for their direct marketing enterprises.

Last week 45 farm women from Columbia, Dodge, Juneau, Marquette and Sauk counties gathered at Wisconsin Dells for a Heart of the Farm conference where they honed their skills in farm finances, quizzed local veterinarians about ways to deal with specific health issues with their livestock, and shared ideas for coping with and surviving through the current farm crisis.

In between all the learning they took time to do a little wine sampling and learn more about Fawn Creek Winery where the event was held.

It is the networking opportunities that most of the attendees say is their main reason for coming to these workshops each year. Participants become quickly acquainted during the facilitated brainstorming session on coping strategies.

RELATED: Ladies, there's still time to join a Heart of the Farm conference near you

While the women ranged in age the their 30’s and the 70’s, the only obvious difference was is in their use of technology.  Younger women had an app on their phone for everything while older women used notebooks, bulletin boards and white message boards and sticky notes for family communication.

When it came to time-management and ways to avoid becoming overwhelmed with farm jobs, Marj Colby of Eastman shared, “Never volunteer for a job unless you want it to be your job forever.”

Other participants quickly agreed and shared their personal stories of how they got stuck with a particular job on the farm.

Time-saving strategies included the use of crock pots for cooking, social media for keeping up with the latest trends, and webinars to save the time of travelling to meetings are among the ideas the participants agree on.

They also shared strategies for keeping farm talk from taking over family time and for balancing the farm business and family responsibilities.

Participants agreed that delegating responsibility, setting priorities and making a list of things to do are strategies that help and give them personal satisfaction in being able to check them off their list.

Bookkeeping help

Since many of those in attendance are responsible for keeping the books on their farms, the session on using the balance sheet to evaluate ways to deal with the current financial challenges on the farm was of particular interest.

Paul Dietmann

Paul Dietmann, senior lending officer at Compeer Financial, says all farms, big and small, are facing challenges.  He points out that milk prices have always fluctuated but even in the last major crisis of the early 1980’s they did not stay down as many years straight.

Dietmann said that in many cases of current financial struggles, timing was a key factor.

Farms struggling were likely the ones that just completed an expansion before the collapse. Other farms that failed—despite farmers being really good managers and having good production—the economy changes coupled with falling property values, contributed to the farm debt outweighing the equity.

He advises struggling farmers to take a step back, look closer at the balance sheets, cost of production and cash flow. 

“Update your current assets and liability monthly, especially in these tough times,” he said. “Control the drama and urgency instinct. Don’t panic but instead focus on the things you CAN control.”

Focus areas

  • Search the balance sheets for unproductive assets and get rid of them.  It may be easier said than done but that includes things like old, unused or underused equipment, unproductive cows, etc.
  • Consider reducing family living expenses by five percent.
  • Look at government guaranteed loan opportunities or work with a lender to get the payments decreased until milk prices improve.
  • Shave five percent off the feed cost (it may be costing more for that extra feed additive than you are getting for the additional milk it produces.)

Dietmann caution against making the budget too lean.

“Make sure to budget enough for repairs if you’re cutting out machinery replacement.”

He points out that some farms have looked for additional ways to bring in income such as marketing produce from what had been the family garden; leasing land or wooded areas of the farm out to hunters (making sure it does not interfere with farming operations); doing some custom work to justify the cost of owning certain equipment (but make sure to get paid).

Warnings and advice

  • Don’t run up credit card debt. Once you are charged credit card interest the debts will increase quickly.
  • Don’t fall for tempting on-line offers for easy money from on-line lenders. 
  • Don’t ignore the problem and think things will just get better eventually.
  • Make sure to take care of yourself, getting enough sleep, finding ways to relax, accept help and encouragement from others and do what you can to help struggling neighbors.
  • Watch for signs of stress or depression within the family and among struggling farm neighbors.
  • Call the Farm Center at the Wisconsin Department for Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection for counseling, ideas, and information about local resources that can help. (800-942-2474)

The conference concluded with an open discussion about specific concerns in animal care.

Drs. Marla Krantz and Natalie Buckner of the Sunrise Veterinary Service, Reedsburg, answered numerous questions of the participants attending Heart of the Farm: Women in Agriculture conference.

Drs. Marla Krantz and Natalie Buckner of the Sunrise Veterinary Service, Reedsburg, answered numerous questions of the participants. Questions were submitted in advance and the answers generated discussion and idea sharing among the 45 participants along with specific advice from the veterinarians.

Since the Heart of the Farm program began more than 2000 women have taken part in the day-long events.  Approximately 67 percent of past participants are from dairy; 6 percent are beef; 7 percent grain and 21 percent are involved in some other aspect of agriculture.