Cattle producer Mary Jane Coign of Starkville pauses while checking her herd Wednesday, as “Lil,” left, two curious calves and “Elaina” look on. Coign is involved in two programs, Annie’s Project and Women for Agriculture, designed to help women in farming. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
June 22, 2013 6:52:37 PM
"Get down, Gabby," Mary Jane Coign gently admonished an exuberant mixed breed dog greeting visitors to the farm. The retired Mississippi State University research chemist was dressed for the field in sturdy khakis, work shoes, straw hat and bug spray. It was time to go check on the cows and calves.
"Just don't move too fast, or they'll probably scatter," she cautioned with a smile, slipping behind the wheel of a well-used Polaris. Gabby jumped in, accustomed to riding shotgun. It's a routine Coign reenacts 365 days a year -- rain or shine, heat wave or snow -- because that's what the job demands of the men and women who choose it.
By the time Coign was 11 years old, she was on her way to being a cattlewoman. She just didn't know it at the time. Every winter afternoon after school, she would make the short trip down the road to her widowed grandmother's farm in Madison County, to help hay and feed the herd her sick grandparent couldn't care for alone any longer. Her father would usually join her when he got home from work.
That's when the seeds took root. Seeds that would bring Coign back to cattle farming decades later, one of the few women in the tough business.
"My grandmother gave me a heifer the first year I fed for her," Coign recounted. "I started raising her calves, and when I was ready to go off to college at the W (in my day, girls didn't go to MSU), I sold them all. My 'cow money' was enough for tuition."
She did end up at Mississippi State, however, and retired only a few years ago after a 35-year career.
In 1980, when Coign and her farming partner, Janice Smathers, decided to team up to purchase more than 100 acres in west Oktibbeha County and begin a cow/calf operation, the going wasn't easy. They faced skepticism from bankers, equipment dealers and even some friends. There were early days when they even questioned themselves.
"I realized there was a lot more to it than I remembered as a child," said Coign. "Putting up hay? Pasture management? The grown-ups had done all that," she laughed. "I wish there had been an Annie's Project around when we were starting out."
Thanks to Annie
Annie's Project, named for its founder's mother, is an in-depth program that teaches women in agriculture-related fields problem solving, record keeping and decision-making skills.
As a child, founder Ruth Hambleton, a retired University of Illinois Extension agriculture economist, watched her mother handle the farm bookkeeping and financial decision-making while her father was out in the field.
"She later took on the physical labor when my father took an off-farm job to make ends meet," she said. Hambleton got an even closer first-hand look at challenges women face when she became a farmer's wife herself.
She designed Annie's Project for women, because women have a unique way of learning.
"Women like to share experiences and need to feel comfortable asking questions," Hambleton explained. Extension Service programming provides valuable information women need, but if they are embarrassed to ask questions or say they don't understand the material, they won't benefit from it, she pointed out.
Keeping the farm
Annie's Project workshops cover topics including business plans, bookkeeping, human resources, marketing, risk management, estate planning and technology. Women are introduced to Extension resources and community service providers who can help with specific issues.
Support is offered to women in all aspects of agriculture -- from the suddenly-widowed, who have to find a way to manage the farm or lose it, to women who may want to make goat soap or sell canned goods.
An Annie's Project workshop in Starkville several years ago led to the formation of a nonprofit organization called Mississippi Women for Agriculture. Sylvia Clark, an MSU Extension family and consumer sciences associate, serves as its vice president.
"The number of women taking on leadership roles associated with agriculture is growing every year," said Clark, a sweet potato farmer with her husband in Vardaman. "We're using Annie's Project as the educational tool to get our message out. With farming, you have to know a lot about everything, not just a little about some things."
That's what inspired Coign to get involved with Annie's Project and serve on the board of Women for Agriculture. That, and remembering her own farming start-up, as well as her grandmother's plight, widowed and left with a farm full of cows, hogs and chickens to deal with.
There was no Annie's Project for Coign and Smathers back in 1980, but they set out to learn all they could from Extension Service resources and anyone who would help. Coign went to "cow college," a course in cattle production at MSU. She was the only woman in the class. The new farmers went to cattlemen's meetings, the only females in attendance. It was, at times, intimidating.
"No one was taking us seriously ... but we broke some barriers," remarked Smathers. Today, the farm gate bears a Master Cattle Producer sign, certifying comprehensive training in everything from beef cattle nutrition, forage systems and genetics, to herd health and marketing.
There have been up years and down years, broken collar bones and hornets' nests -- the types of things farmers know come with the territory.
Were there times they thought of giving it up?
"Oh, yes, you have those days," admitted Coign. "Days when every piece of equipment decides to break, days when you're running around all over the place, and Crazy Alice has broken down the fence ... "
"But once you've invested so much in equipment and livestock, you just keep going," Smathers finished. And all those folks who doubted they would make it 33 years ago? "Some of them come ask us about it now when they have questions," Smathers said with a grin.
For women already farming, or thinking of entering any ag-related activity, Annie's Project and Women for Agriculture, Coign feels, are tremendous assets.
Annie's Project celebrates its 10th anniversary this year with an expansion. Facilitated by MSU's Extension Service, organizers plan to train educators to deliver the program across the state, especially to the counties with the highest number of female landowners or principal operators. Clark hopes workshops will be offered by late winter
The decline in numbers of American farmers is a hot topic and nationwide concern. The average age of cattlemen in Mississippi, for example, is 60, Coign shared.
But while overall numbers may be down, the number of women taking on leadership roles associated with agriculture is growing annually.
Bobbie Shaffett, a family resource management specialist with the Extension Service, said, "It's really exciting that we have women wanting to get involved with Annie's Project and Women for Agriculture; you generally have very diverse groups, and you build relationships. You might have young people who know new technology and experienced women who have a lot to share."
She praised women who are taking the lead in managing ag operations and working toward passing what they have learned on to others.
"These women are entrepreneurs; they've very knowledgeable," she said. "You don't have to worry about getting them to do something -- you have to worry about keeping up with them."
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Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.