CAMERON, W.Va. — On Hazel Dell Farm and at her job with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Katie Fitzsimmons is all about education — for other farmers, and for herself.
At field days and meetings, “I always say, if you don’t walk out of here learning one new thing, I didn’t do my job. But if I don’t walk out of there learning one thing, I didn’t do my job for myself, either,” Fitzsimmons said. “It’s still a learning experience, and you have to stay educated, and you have to know what’s going on.”
Fitzsimmons raises beef cattle with her family in Cameron, West Virginia. She has also worked with other farmers and landowners in several different roles at the NRCS over the last 18 years. Recently, she was one of four women to be honored by the West Virginia Department of Agriculture with the 2021 West Virginia Women in Agriculture award.
Fitzsimmons grew up on her family farm. Getting involved in 4-H and FFA was a no-brainer. She showed market lambs, hogs and steers at the county fair. She was a state FFA officer in 2001, and later received her American FFA degree. Those groups helped her develop her public speaking skills, and get better at keeping records on the farm.
Growing up, Fitzsimmons wanted to be a teacher. Good experiences with her ag teacher and FFA in high school nudged her toward agriculture education, which she studied at West Virginia University. But in college, she got the chance to work for the Natural Resources Conservation Service as a soil tester over the summer. The agency invited her back for more internships over the next two summers.
“I kind of fell in love with it, because not only did I get to work with farmers and work with conservation, but I still got that educational aspect of it,” she said.
Things like organizing field days, bringing in speakers for dinner meetings with farmers and running workshops and programs with youth give Fitzsimmons the chance to get involved with education through NRCS.
After college, Fitzsimmons didn’t expect to come back to the northern panhandle. She figured she’d work in other areas of the state. And for a while, she did. Though she stayed involved with the family farm and had cattle at her dad’s place, she was typically just able to come home to help on the weekends.
Then, in 2008, Fitzsimmons, who was working as a soil conservationist in Fairmont at the time, got an opportunity to come back to the northern panhandle as a district conservationist.
Her grandfather also passed away in 2008. She bought his house, and her father and aunt sold her an additional 28 acres, so that she could come back to the farm. Now, she and her dad and sister farm together. Her land is right next to her dad’s land, and they raise beef cattle in pastures on both farms. The cattle are largely pasture raised, though they finish cattle going to market on grain.
Parts of the farm have been in her family for about a century. She enjoys working on land that her grandfather farmed, though she wishes she could have come back to farm with him before he died. Though the farm has been in the family for a long time, they aren’t farming exactly how Fitzsimmons’ ancestors did.
Work with NRCS has taught Fitzsimmons more about conservation on her own farm. When she first started, she didn’t know how beneficial things like rotating cattle through pastures, grazing hay fields, testing soil and using custom fertilizers could be. Now, she does those things on her farm.
“It’s hard for me to tell somebody, ‘here’s what you should do,’ if I’m not doing it myself,” she said.
Many of the farmers she works with know she has experience using the same practices she encourages them to try. That helps her to help them understand the importance of those practices.
In addition to conservation, Fitzsimmons has made some changes on marketing and sales. The farm used to just sell freezer beef, but some customers didn’t have the space in their freezers for a half or a quarter of a cow. So, they started selling beef by the pound, too.
Fitzsimmons found out that she was nominated for the women in agriculture award in the same phone call that she found out she was selected as one of the winners.
Her sister, Tracy Fitzsimmons, helped get the women in agriculture award program started when she worked at the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, years ago. Tracy now works for the department of agriculture in Virginia. Other women in the northern panhandle have received the award before, Fitzsimmons said, but she never thought she was in the same class as them.
“Never in a million years did I think anybody would ever think that I should be submitted, or … that I would be selected,” she said. “I’m more behind-the-scenes … I don’t need to be out front; I’m okay with standing in the back.”
One of the events Fitzsimmons has helped organize for about a decade is a women in agriculture program in her district. Typically, more than 200 women attend. The goal of the program is to educate women about resources available and help them build the knowledge and confidence to get into farming.
“I think there are a lot of women that have went into ag and have been able to prove, hey, we can do this,” Fitzsimmons said. “People that have come before us have really blazed that trail for us.”
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