Q&A: Agents Laura Siegle and Lindy Fimon talk work and life as women in Extension

Extension agent Lindy Fimon. (Photo: Laura Siegle)

It’s hard for Extension agents Laura Siegle and Lindy Fimon to nail down their favorite memory of working together in the field. The two, respectively serving the counties of Amelia and Lunenburg and specializing in agriculture and natural resources, have collaborated on most of their Extension projects in the past six years. They comb through their list of shared experiences. Maybe it’s the time they spent making cattle marketing videos for producers.

“A lot of the time I’d hold the video camera and Lindy would chase the heifers away that wanted to come to me,” said Siegle, with a chuckle from Fimon.

Another good memory: the outreach Siegle watched Fimon conduct with local producer Don Bowman to teach younger producers about sorghum molasses. Another still: their hours of measuring and Shop-Vac’ing soybeans for variety trials at research plots. “It’s fun to get back out and get dirty,” said Fimon of working at the plots.

Virginia Cooperative Extension currently employs 155 female Extension specialists and agents, whose work spans the state. Women lead state Extension programs at the forefront of research around evolving issues like food safety, water quality, and public health. They act as mentors and drive new learning among Virginia youth as 4-H Extension specialists and local 4-H agents. They lend thousands of hours to volunteering as Master Gardeners, Naturalists, and Food Volunteers. And women like Siegle and Fimon work together to serve their communities.

This week, Siegle and Fimon sat down together to talk about work, life, and balancing the two.

How long have you known each other, and when did you start working together?

Laura Siegle: I was hired in September 2012, and I met Lindy the day before I officially started working, actually. I went to Family and Farm Day in Blackstone, an Extension outreach event. Lindy was there, running the corn husk doll and corn education booths. That was the first day I met her as an agent. I believe she’d been hired a couple months before I had. Is that correct?

Lindy Tucker Fimon: Yeah. I started in April. Family and Farm Day. The rest is history.

In what ways do you collaborate? How would you describe your working relationship?

Laura: We’re fortunate that we’re close, both as friends through the job and in localities that are near one another. I’d say there are very few ways that we don’t collaborate, honestly. We’ve done youth programs together, we’ve done cattle programs together, we’ve done crop programs together, we’ve done internal projects for Extension together, communications and social media efforts together. A whole number of things. I would definitely describe ours as one of the most productive working relationships I’ve ever had.

Lindy: How would I describe our working relationship? Pretty darn effective. We get a lot done.

We pretty much collaborate on everything, like Laura said. We’re fortunate that we came in with a bigger hiring and it happened to be a lot of people our age. It made it a little easier because we all could relate, but also, there were a lot of women. Which was kind of unusual. Our district seems to be heavy on female agricultural agents. Before we came on, there were like three agents covering most of the district, which is a quarter of the state. That’s a lot on their plates. They welcomed us with open arms, and that laid the groundwork for us. We were all new, we didn’t know what we were doing, and we relied on each other to figure it out.

What are some of your shared goals for serving your region?

Laura: We want the best for the producers and the residents in our area. And we want to give them our best, which takes a lot of time and energy. We dedicate a lot of it to that. And you can see that from the types of projects we end up pursuing. We focus a lot on the things that need to be done on an annual basis. Certain education, outreach, and certifications that landowners and producers need. But we also – both us and our colleagues – try really hard to be on the edge of some of the emerging agriculture issues in our area. We’ve made that our priority as well, to be responsive to those.

Lindy: I echo all of that. Like Laura said, we have so many needs and there are so many goals. Figuring out the best and most efficient ways to meet as many needs and achieve as many of our goals as possible. That really comes down to teamwork and all of us working together. And not having to reinvent the wheel for everything. We’re not recreating the same program from scratch in every county, but we’re sharing that information or that setup.

Siegle and Fimon often work together in the field.

What have you learned from one another – knowledge, methods, life and work advice?

Laura: We face some of the same challenges with a time-intensive, service-based job like this. We’ve learned from each other as we watch each other work through them. One thing is just learning to prioritize the things that are the most important and to make time to stay creative with your energy, your brain cells, and all the things that get worn out when you’re working hard to solve a myriad of challenges. I know both of us have gone through different phases in life where work has been particularly challenging, or just keeping up with responsibilities at home has been challenging with life changes that come. Watching Lindy has helped me a lot.

Lindy: Laura is probably one of the most dedicated and efficient people doing this job, for sure. Watching how she gets it done and how she prioritizes – I think we all look at each other for that, and we ask these questions of each other all the time: “What are you doing with this?” “How are you handling this?” “How have you met these needs in your county?”

As far as knowledge, we all have a different background and a little bit different emphasis or expertise, so we just rely on each other for those things. We don’t try to all learn everything to the same degree. I’m calling Laura for anything dairy or horse-related. We tag team on cow things. Things like that. Everybody has their specialty. We draw on each other for knowledge.

What’s it like to work as women in Extension right now, especially as young women?

Laura: As an Extension agent, you have a lot of similar challenges, no matter who you are. With time management and prioritization, just a lot of things that come and you can’t always plan for. Being a female in this job – it’s not something I think about on a regular basis. I think everyone’s experience is a little bit different, so I’m always speaking for myself. In this area, things have been pretty good and everyone’s really supportive, because we have a culture where plenty of women are in the agriculture industry. People are used to it and they’ve gotten to know us over the years. I have Lindy next door and a bunch of female agents around me. It’s nothing really too new or different for us in this area, because we’ve all been working together for five, six, seven years. Plus, we have agents that came before us that are still around.

I think being young is a factor – male or female. When you’re younger, sometimes, it takes a lot of time to earn respect. You have to show people what you know – or, to be honest, what you don’t know – and gain that respect, and get them interested and learning about how you can help. That can certainly be challenging.

Lindy: I think the times being different in other ways have been more of a factor. We’re just in a different world today than a lot of our predecessors that we’re compared to, that were there 40 years ago. There was more field time. There was more of a focus on one particular crop or one type of commodity – not everything from the homeowner’s garden to cattle, to whatever’s hot right now, like industrial hemp. It’s wider and it’s broader. There’s also less staff, so there are more broad responsibilities as an agent. Like working more on programs at the state level. Those are the kinds of challenges we face more than being women, as far as work is considered.

I think the challenges women face in this role – and I haven’t faced a lot of this yet – is with work-life balance. There are just some traditional roles that have changed, with more and more women working in jobs that they traditionally hadn’t. That presents some challenges. So it’s been great to look to our colleagues that have taken that on. Really, this generation is the first in this role to figure out how to balance families and raising children with the type of work that they do. It’s exciting to see. It’s kind of a new chapter for this industry right now. It’s been interesting to watch our colleagues figure this out and figure out how it’s going to work for them. For me, it seems like the heaviest challenge I can feel, even though I’m not facing it yet.

Laura: I agree.

Ext agent Lindy Fimon in the field

Fimon has worked on outreach with local sorghum producer Don Bowman.

How can women working in Extension – as well as in agriculture – support each other?

Lindy: Just be real and open. I think our advantage has been that we haven’t faked that we’ve got it all together. That’s the only comfortable setting to learn in, if people are being real and honest about the struggles that they’re facing with balancing work, or balancing work and life. Asking: “I’m having trouble with this – what do you do, how do you handle this?”

Laura: For the most part, whether you’re in Extension or sales or any other facet of the industry, if you’re building relationships with people, they’re understanding and supportive of you. My colleagues will talk to their producers about their families and kids, because producers value that and understand how important it is. Like all things in life, being good with people gets you really far. And genuinely caring about people and listening to people. When you do that, you build trust, and when you build trust, people respect you and care about you, and care about the things that matter to you. So when you’re a woman that has some challenges women have in the field, the producers are going to help you, or at least be understanding of what you have going on.

As far as supporting each other in Extension, building relationships with one another is important. Talking about things that are tough. If you don’t talk about them, it’s rough. And this job can be really stressful. I’ve had days where I was just overwhelmed. Sometimes it was just a matter of venting, so if I vented to the right person, one of the women around me going through something similar, a lot of times it felt better. That was the support I needed at that time.

Lindy: We’ve all been really overwhelmed at some point. We can all relate to that.  Especially when there’s a new agent and they’re like, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” You’re like: “No one did, what do you need help with?” That helps a lot.

Written by Suzanne Irby

Share

Virginia Cooperative Extension’s 2019 Pest Management and Production Guides are Now Available

The 2019 Virginia Cooperative Extension pest management and production guides, which provide current information on spraying, pest management, and field crop and vegetable production are now available for purchase and free download. The guides can be accessed at www.pubs.ext.vt.edu by selecting the “Publications for Sale” link.

2019 Spray Bulletin for Commercial Tree Fruit Growers
Spray Bulletin for Commercial Tree Fruit Growers has been completely updated and provides resources for safe spraying practices, such as application, storage, appropriate clothing choices, laws and regulations, and other specific guidelines.

 

Mid-Atlantic Commercial Vegetable Production Recommendations
The latest version of the Mid-Atlantic Commercial Vegetable Production Recommendations replaces all of the previous editions from Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. This guide is designed for the commercial vegetable grower and provides recommended selections for variety, pesticides, irrigation, fertilizer, and cultural practices.

 

The Virginia Cooperative Extension Pest Management Guides are divided into three different volumes: Home Grounds and Animals, Field Crops, and Horticultural Forest Crops.

Home Grounds and Animals Pest Management Guide
The Home Grounds and Animals Pest Management Guide provides gardeners with the latest recommendations for controlling diseases, insects, and weeds with non-chemical control alternatives, while also integrating in the appropriate integrated pest management guidelines (IPM).

 

Field Crops Pest Management Guide
The Field Crops Pest Management Guide provides farmers and crop-protection professionals with new information on management tactics for major pest problems, while also referencing chemicals registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

 

Horticultural and Forest Crops Pest Management Guide
The Horticultural and Forest Crops Pest Management Guide gives growers current information on the controlling of diseases, insects, nematodes, and weeds; this is not an all-inclusive control plan for the pests in Virginia, yet it does provide a wide range of recommendations for growers.

 

These handbooks are intended only to be used as guides. Pesticide labels should be consulted for application methods, instructions, and precautions. Most of these guidelines will be updated yearly with new, relevant regulatory information.

For more information about these guides or other Virginia Cooperative Extension publications, contact Lori Greiner, VCE publications manager, at lgreiner@vt.edu or 540-231-5863.

— Written by Gabrielle Sanderson

Share

Cooperative Extension associate ignites high school students’ interest in science, protecting water supplies

Carroll County students in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering water quality lab

Carroll County students in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering water quality lab. As the United States continues to be surpassed by other industrialized nations in STEM education – Canada and Singapore among them – innovative STEM educational initiatives have become ever more critical. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, careers in the math and science fields will grow exponentially faster than average.

In his book, “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell coined the term “connector,” referring to “a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack [… for] making friends and acquaintances.” Connectors are, according to Gladwell, able to galvanize others and possess “… a special gift for bringing the world together.”

Erin Ling is just such a person.

The Virginia Cooperative Extension associate and coordinator of the Virginia Household Water Quality Program in the Virginia Tech Department of Biological Systems has a unique ability to draw connections between ideas, concepts, and people who, by coming together in partnership, spark new possibilities. This is just what she did when she met Rachelle Rasco ’92, the STEM agriculture lab manager for Carroll County High School, during a teachers program nearly four years ago.

“We met and hit it off, and pretty quickly we started working together to figure out how to adapt the Virginia Household Water Quality Program well-testing program to make it possible for high school students to participate,” said Ling ’00, with her characteristic enthusiasm. “We knew that we could tie the material to what they were already learning in their science classes, but show them why it matters in a very real, tangible way – through their families’ drinking water.”

Isabelle “Izzy” Largen ’22 (center) with Erin Ling '00 (left) and Rachelle Rasco '92 (right)

Isabelle “Izzy” Largen ’22 (center) with Erin Ling ’00 (left) and Rachelle Rasco ’92 (right). Largen entered Ling’s program as a 10th grade student at Carroll County High School. The experience informed her desire to attend Virginia Tech and her choice of majors.

The Virginia Household Water Quality Program (VAHWQP) is an Extension project that provides affordable water testing and education to residents of the commonwealth. Since Ling and Rasco, with the assistance of Hannah Scherer, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education and a specialist with Virginia Cooperative Extension, and Randy Webb ’07, ’18, an agricultural instructor and FFA advisor for Carroll County High School, teamed up in 2015, the program has increased student awareness of water quality issues and stimulated interest in science, technology, engineering, and math educational programs.

“The students come to Virginia Tech to see how testing is done and how it is applied,” said Rasco. “They learn about pH, bacteria, and water chemistry. When they go into other classes, they are more competent. This learning about water permeates everything, but it starts at a personal level because it’s their drinking water.”

After collecting water from their wells or springs, students bring their water samples to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Biological Systems Engineering water quality lab in the state-of-the-art Human and Agricultural Biosciences Building 1. There, they spend the day conducting hands-on lab activities and listening to presentations from water quality and food safety researchers and well drilling contractors.

While the students are on campus, lab staff begin analyzing their household water samples for total coliform bacteria, E. coli, pH, nitrate, total dissolved solids, and fluoride. Portions of samples are prepared and delivered to the environmental and water resources engineering lab for additional analysis for lead, arsenic, copper, iron, manganese, hardness, sulfate, and sodium.

Working with experts like Marc Edwards, University Distinguished Professor with the Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and other researchers who helped to uncover metals contamination in household water in places like Flint, Michigan, has been invaluable to VAHWQP. The testing for high schoolers and their families is provided free of charge thanks to donations from the Virginia Lakes and Watersheds Association and the Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project.

“One in five Virginians rely on wells or springs,” said Ling. “About 80 percent of these folks have never tested or have tested only once. We know that testing and understanding their results leads many people to take action to improve their water system or install treatment devices, so this is another way to reach more families with our program. Working with the high school students allows them build on what they are learning and also helps their families test their water.”

Since 1989, VAHWQP researchers have analyzed approximately 29,000 samples. The results have been sobering, with total coliform bacteria present in 40 percent of samples; E. coli bacteria in 9 percent, indicating the presence of human or animal waste; and perhaps most alarmingly, lead in 16 percent of the water samples.

Since 2015, approximately 280 students from Carroll, Washington, and Grayson County high schools have participated in the program.

Since 2015, approximately 280 students from Carroll, Washington, and Grayson County high schools have participated in the program.

“Flint, Michigan, inspired us to care,” said Webb, who earned his Ph.D. this year from Virginia Tech in agricultural leadership and community education. “Now, the kids see what’s important about this because this is their water and their lives. We make it personal for them. And when you make it personal, they remember it better.”

Ling, Rasco, and Webb see water testing as both a personal and a pertinent conduit to the world of science – one with direct health implications for the students and their families. But the trio is also guided by a shared, long-term mission to foster students’ understanding of and passion for STEM subjects while encouraging them to pursue a college education.

“We are dedicated to experiential learning. This is why our kids do well in post-secondary education,” said Webb. “They get to see, touch, feel, and experience what we are teaching them in the classroom through experiences like this. And, when you collaborate with a university like Virginia Tech, you bring the most innovative research and minds into your school.”

Since 2015, more than 225 students have participated in the educational tours and testing. In 2018, Ling expanded the program to include high schools in Washington and Grayson counties, reaching an additional 55 students and families. The VAHWQP coordinator is also working with the Virginia Tech’s Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences chapter to encourage members to work with the high school students during their visits to campus.

“We have had kids go on to Virginia Tech, UVA, and into science majors. By the time they reach college, these kids have had a breadth of experiences,” said Rasco.

Isabelle “Izzy” Largen ’22, who is pursuing a degree in water: resources, policy, and management, is one of those students. She entered Ling’s program as a 10th grade student at Carroll County High School.

“When we visited Virginia Tech, we saw a model of groundwater and learned how pollution works. We also learned about drills, how wells are made, and regulations,” said Largen, whose family home is more than 100 years old and is fed by a spring. “I learned that water can be contaminated with bacteria from sources such as deer, dogs, and other animals. And, if your pH is really high or really low, it can affect your pipes, causing them to degrade and leach metals into water.”

The experience informed Largen’s desire to attend Virginia Tech and her choice of majors. She is minoring in Arabic and aspires to work with water policy and infrastructure in the Middle East.

“This program helped bring it all together for me, all of my interest in science. We also learned how to present, which helped with public speaking,” said Largen. “If I hadn’t met Ms. Rasco and Erin Ling, I wouldn’t be here now. They helped me dip my toes into different aspects of science, and they are willing to help you in any way they can. They connect you with anyone and anything.”

Webb is particularly proud that many of his graduates are not only well-prepared for college, they are pursuing impressive careers because of the program.

“Several of our students have come to Virginia Tech,” he said. “One is now with USDA, and another is an Extension agent. Several are working for well-known private companies.”

No one is more proud than Ling, whose passion for science and gift for connections are at the nexus of the program.

“Many kids can’t even imagine all the possibilities that are out there,” she said. “I feel it should be part of our mission as a land-grant university to give them the opportunity to see what we have to offer and what they can become.”

— Written by Amy Painter

Share

Daniel Austin receives conservation award for stewardship and innovation

Left to right: Chris Lawrence, state cropland agronomist for USDA-NRCS; Franklin County farmer Daniel Austin of Green Sprig Ag; and, Dan Luebben, son of Carl.

Left to right: Chris Lawrence, state cropland agronomist for USDA-NRCS; Franklin County farmer Daniel Austin of Green Sprig Ag; and, Dan Luebben, son of Carl.

Franklin County farmer Daniel Austin recently received the fifth annual Carl G. Luebben Soil Health and Water Quality Award for his contributions to conservation in the commonwealth.

Sponsored by Houff Corp., the award is named for Luebben, a former Houff salesman known for his passion for agronomy, sustainable systems, soil health research, and mentorship of conservation professionals.

Daniel Austin is a fifth-generation farmer who was raised on a dairy and began overseeing forage production on two family-run, confined dairy operations by the age of 18. He has farmed more than 500 acres of forages and grain crops annually.

Today, Austin owns and operates Green Sprig Ag, where he specializes in forage and cover-crop seed, as well as custom no-till planting and forage harvesting. The producer doesn’t just custom-blend forage and cover-crop seed mixes, he is a regional guru, advising farmers, industry, and agency experts on what to plant and when.

Austin is a true innovator, always willing to host test plots and try new approaches. He is also a passionate advocate for soil-health-building no-till systems, leading by example with his adoption of continuous no-till and aggressive cover cropping. He founded the Franklin County chapter of the Virginia No-till Alliance and has been a major agent for change in land management practices.

Since the first planter clinic in 2011, Austin has organized, promoted, hosted, sponsored, and spoken at dozens of educational events for growers and conservation partners. In the past decade, his efforts have led to a dramatic reduction in tillage and bare fields across Franklin County.

Austin and his wife are deeply committed to their agricultural heritage with an overriding goal of building an enterprise that will allow their son to carry on the family farming tradition. He also hopes to influence other farmers to adapt to the new realities of agriculture. Committed to finding ways to stay profitable in the face of decreasing milk and commodity crop prices, Austin has shifted his focus to value-added production and marketing. He grows food-grade small grains for specialty markets and runs the Little Red Hen feed mill to process his non-GMO corn, soybeans, and small grains into feed for local small-scale poultry and swine growers.

The producer received his award at the Virginia Farm to Table Conference at Blue Ridge Community College last month. The conference is hosted annually by Virginia Cooperative Extension, USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, and community partners.

Carl Luebben’s son Dan was on hand to participate in the presentation. Carl Luebben, who passed away in October 2015, previously served on the Virginia Farm Bureau Board, the Shenandoah Resource Conservation and Development Council, and the Shenandoah Valley Soil and Water Conservation District.

— Written by Zeke Barlow

Share

Virginia 4-H judging team earns second consecutive Eastern National 4-H Roundup Championship

Virginia 4-H horse judging

The Eastern National 2018 team, pictured left to right: Taryn Cowles, Ruth Martin, Laurel Pollock, Sydney Hudson, Charlotte Manvell, Emily Wright, Katie Define, Emily Dougherty, Nikki Novak, Claire Edwards, Caroline Perkins, Sarah Foster, and Kate Hudson. Not pictured, Meghan Peterson.

For the second year in a row, the Virginia 4-H horse judging team won the 2018 Eastern National 4-H Roundup Championship. The hippology team earned the reserve championship.

The Eastern Nationals competition was held Nov. 2-4, 2018, in Louisville, Kentucky, at the state’s exposition center during the North American International Livestock Exposition.

“It was just as exciting to win again this year,” said Leona Ransdell, 4-H horse program and youth equine Extension program associate with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Animal and Poultry Science. “We had an extremely talented group going in, and I knew they had the ability to do it. I’m proud of how they represented their state at this prestigious event. Of the five judging contests we participated in, our team members won champion or reserve champion in three events – an impressive feat!”

Congratulations to the following Virginia 4-H team members for their placements:

Horse judging
Team: Caroline Perkins, Katie Define, Nikki Novak, Emily Dougherty

Halter
Nikki Novak – 1st Individual
Emily Dougherty – 6th Individual
Virginia – 1st Team

Performance
Emily Dougherty – 3rd Individual
Nikki – 4th Individual
Katie Define – 6th Individual
Caroline Perkins – 9th Individual
Virginia – 1st Team

Reasons
Nikki Novak   – 1st Individual
Caroline Perkins – 3rd Individual
Emily Dougherty – 7th Individual
Katie Define – 9th Individual
Virginia – 1st Team

Overall
Nikki Novak – 1st Individual
Emily Dougherty – 2nd Individual
Katie Define – 5th Individual
Virginia – 1st Team Overall

Hippology
Team: Charlotte Manvell, Emily Wright, Ruth Martin, Laurel Pollock

Written phase
Charlotte Manvell – 2nd Individual
Virginia – 2nd Team

Judging phase
Ruth Martin – 5th Individual
Virginia – 4th Team

Stations
Charlotte Manvell – 3rd Individual
Virginia – 2nd Team

Team problem
Virginia – 1st Team

Individual overall
Charlotte Manvell – 2nd Overall

Team overall
Virginia – 2nd Overall

Individual presentation
Sydney Hudson – 4th

The Virginia 4-H horse bowl team, consisting of Claire Edwards, Kate Hudson, Meghan Peterson, Sarah Foster, and public speaking competitor Taryn Cowles, also deserves congratulations for its selection to compete in the national competition, which included teams from 26 states. In addition, Charlotte Manvell (Orange County) spoke as the guest youth to approximately 750 attendees during a breakfast ceremony. Full results and photos are available at  http://www.4hroundup.com/results.

“All of our teams worked very hard with weekly studies and practices leading up to these contests,” said Sandy Arnold, 4-H program and youth equine Extension associate with the college’s Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences. “They went in very prepared, and I am proud to see that their hard work paid off with these great wins!”

Last fall, the horse judging and hippology teams competed at the All American Quarter Horse Congress hippology contest in Columbus, Ohio. Of 17 teams competing from all over the nation (combining breed associations, FFA teams, and other 4-H teams), the Virginia hippology team earned third place overall, and the horse judging team won fifth overall.

Over the summer, the state 4-H educational teams had great success at the Southern Regional competition. The hippology teams placed third and sixth overall, competing against 16 teams, and the horse bowl team placed eighth overall out of 18 teams. The two horse judging teams won second and fourth place overall against 16 teams. The communications contestants earned two first places, a second, a fifth, and a 10th.

The 4-H horse program depends on the financial support of donors. Donations may be made at the Virginia Tech Foundation giving page: https://ext.vt.edu/4h-youth/horse/giving.html. Please designate donations to the VA 4-H horse program.

Share