After 50 years with Washington State University, award-winning family & consumer scientist Margaret Viebrock remains fueled by a passion to help families.
“The legacy of WSU Extension is helping people right where they are,” Viebrock said. As the director of WSU Chelan and Douglas County Extension, she leads continuing education programs in local communities tackling nutrition, food safety, diabetes prevention and helping children cope with divorce.
Raised in snowy North Dakota, Viebrock had just finished student teaching when she applied to WSU.
“I didn’t think it would snow there,” she said of WSU’s Eastern Washington location.
Viebrock was hired as an Extension educator over the telephone in the summer of 1970. She packed up her Volkswagen Beetle to make her move west.
“I have watched the whole process of Extension education change,” said Viebrock of her five-decades-long career.
Tracing its roots to the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, cooperative extension was created to bring useful, practical information on subjects in agriculture and home economics to people all across the U.S.
Today, WSU Extension engages families, organizations, and communities across Washington, through programs that run the gamut from 4-H to parenting education to forestry classes and agricultural field days. Each year, WSU Extension youth and family programs and publications reach individuals across Washington state’s 39 counties and reservations, using the latest technology and methods to address current issues and needs.
When she began, in the 1970s, Extension focused on working with groups of homemakers, teaching classes for the public, food preservation and cooking skills. As countertop microwaves became popular, for example, Viebrock was tasked with holding multiple Extension workshops on how to use one.
“Hundreds of people came to learn,” she said.
Decades ago, the prevailing stereotype was that a woman’s primary job was to cook meals and take them to men working in the field.
“Women weren’t owning the farm like they are today,” Viebrock said “They were always called the ‘farmer’s wife’ – now they are the farmers.” According to the USDA 2017 census of agriculture, 42% of Washington farmers are women.
Despite the statistics, Viebrock said women farmers continue to be underserved.
“There are very few support networks to offer women an opportunity to work together, share concerns, and strengthen their farm-family role.”
Women farmers are often tasked with not only caring for themselves, but often caring for extended family members, all while balancing the responsibilities that come with a major agriculture operation.
Viebrock has worked hard to assist women growers with the unique challenges they face. Her flagship educational program for women in agriculture, Women, Farms & Food, now spans six states.
Amid COVID-19, Viebrock has been hosting her Women, Farms & Food program via Zoom. Viebrock said she is reaching between 600 and 700 women from Washington, Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Hawaii, and Oregon on a Saturday for her virtual meetings.
“The biggest thing about women farmers, is they want to learn from each other.”
As time went on, Viebrock evolved from a home economist to a family and consumer scientist. She has earned multiple grants and awards for her programs in economic development, helping entrepreneurs develop specialty food products, and training Extension volunteers to teach food preservation. She has assisted tribes with educating tribal members about food safety, works in diabetes prevention, nutrition education, and assists farm families with risk management.
“All along, my philosophy has been that families are important,” Viebrock said. “They are the backbone of what we do.”
In 1992, Viebrock was awarded a USDA Food and Nutrition Service grant to bring nutrition education programs to limited income families. Now in its 26th year, the program reaches students in three counties and 206 classrooms, featuring a six-week curriculum focused on healthy eating and exercise, and English as a second language.
Her most satisfying accomplishment is knowing that she’s made a difference in doing what is important for families and communities.
“It’s not the farm, it’s the family that holds everything together,” she said.