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.
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.
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