Program helps women succeed in agriculture
TYLER, Texas (AP)--Goats and bees started Traci Verdell's interest in agriculture.
The first seed was planted when she went to a dairy goat research center in the late 1980s.
She said the experience was eye-opening for her and her taste buds.
"They made it look glamorous,'' she said. "I had goat milk ice cream and was hooked.''
Verdell, a former park ranger, said she also used to go to the Elementary Institute of Science when she was a child. She dealt with bees there each week and wanted them since. Although the interest was there early on, she never had the space or opportunity to have the animals until she moved to her husband's land--a 20-acre property on County Road 2414 in Alto--where she has cows, chickens, goats and bees.
Verdell is only one of the women involved with a program called Annie's Project, which has been taught in other states but is being brought to Texas through the Cherokee County AgriLife Extension Office.
Extension Agent Rene McCracken said the program's purpose is to provide women in agriculture with the training they need to be more successful, whether they want a better sustainable farm or one that is more economically feasible.
Verdell originally moved to Alto so she could take care of her great-aunt. However, she got married, and her husband, Cecil, has been supportive of her agriculture endeavors. "He went along with it,'' she said with a laugh. "Cows are my husband's thing, and goats and bees are my thing. We both mess around with chickens.''
She manages three hives of bees and collects swarms for the city.
She said bees are a lot of work in the summer, but they can't move as well when it's cold, so less work is required.
She always gets honey out on Father's Day, but she could get honey more than once a year if she wanted.
Verdell also has three goats--two females and one male.
She said she typically takes brush to them for food and lets them run around with the cows. In the future, she hopes to learn how to market so she can make bee keeping more than a hobby. For instance, she said, she can raise queens and sell the pollen or wax.
She said she has sold honey at heritage festivals and street fairs, but she doesn't have a name for her honey yet.
"I just decorate jars real pretty,'' she said with a smile, adding that she once made bows out of Smarties wrappers.
At some point, Verdell also would like to raise goats to sell.
"I want to learn how to turn it into income,'' she said. "I do research on my own, and I know the health benefits of honey and raw milk.''
She said what she enjoys most about her farm is that everything is intertwined. For instance, bees help her garden. She also enjoys bartering and giving away produce.
Janie Law is another woman involved with Annie's Project.
The retired Rusk resident owns eight Alpaca, three of which are female. They are boarded in Frankston, but she hopes to have them all on her 5-acre property on County Road 1301 by summer.
Law moved to the property three years ago after she retired from a title company in Grapevine.
She and her husband, Jim, wanted an old house to refurbish and found the Rusk property on the Internet.
"We had looked at other property, but when you're home, you feel it,'' she said. "We wanted to retire in East Texas.''
She said she grew up on a farm about seven miles north of Denton, so she is familiar with farm life.
But it was a trip to Galveston that solidified her love for Alpacas.
"We had gone to Galveston to Dickens on The Strand, and they had an Alpaca there,'' she said. "We instantly fell in love with them. We kept seeing them and decided it would be something we'd enjoy having.''
Law said taking care of Alpacas is work "but a lot of fun.''
"They are such unique animals,'' she said. "We have one...her mom died when she was days old, so she was bottle-fed on the Cleburne farm (she came from). She sees you coming and she will (lie) at your feet like a dog would.''
Law also wants to learn how to spin fiber, get some bees and have a chicken house where she can get eggs. Plans also could be in store for a small vineyard on her property. She said the overarching goal is for the property to be a functioning farm, and she hopes Annie's Project will help her with that.
"I hope the class will give a better understanding of how to do things on working farms,'' she said. "I feel like a person raising goats could give useful information to us.''
She added, "I always just feel tired at the end of the day, but it's good to look out and see what you've accomplished.''
Annie's Project will be offered in six sessions beginning Feb. 21, a majority of which will be at Lon Morris College in Jacksonville.
Extension Agent McCracken said the program started in 2004 in Illinois through an extension group.
"Annie was a real person,'' she said. "She was a city girl who wanted to move to the country. When she got married, she married a dairy man. Through struggles and trying to make a family farm work, she was trying to find out where (to) get information on managing decisions (and) balanc(ing) raising a family.''
Annie died in 1997, and her daughter started the program in Illinois, she said. Now, McCracken said, the program can help women like Annie by answering questions such as "Should we plant this type of grass?'' "Should you have crop protection insurance'' and "Should we fertilize?''
"These ladies become really good friends and develop friendships,'' she said. "I wanted them to be able to have the education and the tools they need for this to be as easy of a decision as what they are going to cook for dinner...Essentially, we want them to have tools to be better farm women.''