Feature articles published in Horizons magazine about alumni who are making a difference in agriculture, their communities, the state, the nation and abroad.
Emerging leaders could learn a great deal from longtime leader Burt Bundy (29). He’s an ideal example of someone who has made a difference in variety of roles in his community, county and industry over many decades.
His latest endeavor: supervisor for Tehama County, the county he’s called home for almost his entire life. Bundy held the position before (1981-1993), but decided to run again nearly two decades later because he wanted to better represent his district and make a difference.
“There are some issues that are very important in our community, such as jobs, roads, public safety, getting funding for the fairgrounds, and other local challenges. Ag and resources are very important here, and they’re the topics I’m most passionate about, so I’ll focus on those as well.”
Bundy will take office in January 2013, not long after his 71st birthday. To prepare, he’s meeting with local authorities and department heads, attending supervisor meetings and gathering ideas.
“Being a supervisor was one of the most interesting jobs I’d ever done,” said Bundy. “I’m looking forward to this time around. When I began my first term as supervisor, I was the youngest one on the board. I’ve learned a lot since. I wish I’d gone through Ag Leadership back then!”
Bundy spent much of his time campaigning by talking with friends, neighbors and residents – which he enjoyed. But he steered clear of dirty politics. “I talked with my opponent before the campaign and we agreed to keep it clean. I felt good about that. I ran on the issues only. I also didn’t take any campaign contributions.”
What undoubtedly contributed to Bundy’s victory were his history, experience and leadership in the region.
He spent five decades as a small farmer and cattle rancher, and is a former feed store owner. He is currently president of Mill Creek Conservancy and a member of the Shasta College Ag Advisory Committee and Central Tehama Kiwanis. Bundy has served as the Los Molinos Chamber of Commerce president and on the Tehama County General Plan Advisory Committee and California Reclamation Board. His family has been involved with the Tehama District Fair for more than 50 years.
Bundy also helped found and develop the Sacramento River Conservation Area Forum (SRCAF), a nonprofit that he managed for 10 years. SRCAF helps coordinates flood management and habitat activities along the river. “I’ve been proud of this endeavor,” he said. “It’s a bit controversial, but it has provided a voice for everybody and that’s what I like about it.”
His longest lasting commitment has been with Farm Bureau. “A great organization to work for,” he said. Bundy served on the California Farm Bureau Federation board for seven years and has served on the Tehama County Farm Bureau board on and off since the 1960s.
It was with TCFB that Bundy utilized certain leadership skills to get through a devastating incident that occurred after he graduated from Ag Leadership.
“TCFB was facing an embezzlement issue and what it did to our board was the biggest damage,” said Bundy. “There was finger pointing, blaming and loss of trust. It was very divisive. It was an extremely challenging time for us. But I was able to take those split groups, bring people back together, and work out solutions. I learned that from Ag Leadership.”
Bundy credited Ag Leadership with another TCFB accomplishment. While president, he successfully secured enough funds (about $150,000) to build a new office. “I stepped up, but it was really a team effort. I could not have done it without Ag Leadership.”
Bundy’s efforts in Tehama County have earned him accolades. TCFB honored him with the Farmer of the Year Award in 2011. “I was totally surprised,” he said. “Production ag is very important to our economy here. It was important to be recognized as a small farmer and I was proud of the honor.”
He also received a resolution in 2007, presented by then Senator Jim Nielsen (5), which recognized him for bringing together communities, individuals, organizations and agencies along the Sacramento River, making resource management and restoration efforts more effective and sensitive to the needs of local communities.
“My passion has always been agriculture,” said Bundy. “It’s been my life, I feel very strongly about it, and I’ll continue to advocate for it.”
On Ag Leadership
Ag Leadership helped me tremendously. I wish that I’d done it earlier in life. Every aspect of the program was helpful. The national trip was very productive. Ag Leadership encouraged me to problem solve. It made me focus more on specific tasks and getting them done efficiently. It helped me with listening skills, working with all sides, collaborating with different people. I met some really great people through the program – that was a big bonus.
On Sept. 9, 2011, Stephen Patricio (19) got a phone call about a devastating listeria outbreak linked to cantaloupes. Even though the source was Colorado-grown melons, the tragedy would have a major impact on California’s cantaloupe industry, which produces about 70% of domestic cantaloupes.
As chair of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board (CAB) and president and CEO of Westside Produce, a major grower/packer/shipper of melons in California and Arizona, Patricio’s leadership skills kicked in. The situation called for crisis management, communication, collaboration and problem solving.
“When something like this happens, you have to have a strategy,” said Patricio. “We were informed of the outbreak at 11 a.m. and we had our crisis management team together by 1 p.m. We were in the heart of harvest season and needed to get as many facts as possible. Our crisis team was quickly getting the messages out to sales people and others.”
The crisis brought intense media attention and Patricio was interviewed by countless media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Christian Science Monitor. During the early days, and for months following, he dealt with regulators, researchers, produce buyers, health officials and industry groups.
Said Patricio, “The most important lessons I learned were to stay calm, stick to the points, combat your own bias, and be an effective communicator. You need to be sharp, knowledgeable and fully prepared for questions. You also have to put yourself in the victims’ shoes, since they’re the ones who have the real problems.”
At the time of the outbreak, Patricio was just beginning his first term as chair of the Center for Produce Safety (CPS) at UC Davis. CPS was formed as a result of another food safety crisis: the 2006 E. coli outbreak in spinach. “It was extremely unfortunate that the melon crisis happened to our industry, but we were fortunate that CPS was in place when it hit and that we were able to respond so quickly.”
CPS is a great Ag Leadership example, said Patricio. “We have academics and researchers, as well as representatives from the ag industry, regulatory agencies, food service and retail sectors. It’s an incredible coalition of stakeholders in produce safety who work collectively to identify and fund science-based research that will enhance the safety of fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s a very engaging group.”
Aside from his unique leadership role with the melon crisis, Patricio has made a difference with many groups. In addition to CAB and CPS, he currently serves on the California Melon Research Board, Western Growers Association board (chair, 2007) and Monsanto’s Vegetable Seeds Advisory Council. He has also served as chair of Monrovia Nursery. In his community, for many years Patricio has volunteered for schools, his church and the Ken Anderson Cancer Foundation.
Patricio said leadership is indispensable, whether in business or in a community. “People want to see a confident person leading them. A leader must have a quality that people will want to follow you and believe you’ll do the right thing. It speaks to character. Those who lead from a plan are not as strong as those who lead from character. It’s about leading by example. It’s also important to keep others engaged and excited about your mission.”
A CPA by profession, Patricio entered the produce industry 37 years ago with few ties to agriculture. “Learning about and seeing how the ag industry flows, and becoming a part of that flow, has been very fulfilling. The people and the families – they’re what keep me involved. I enjoy watching the generations. People and ideas make the industry what it is.”
He added that working in the produce world, one must be versed in many elements of the business. “You need to know about labor, marketing, food safety, laws and regulations, international issues. Some trends and practices come back in. An old issue might come up again and we’ll have to come up with a new solution. It’s challenging, but also very exciting.”
On Ag Leadership
Ag Leadership changed the way I think about every part of my life. As much as it is an education, it is a self-reflective soul searching journey that brings you to a point where you have a better understanding of yourself. You learn how you must relate to the world around you. You have a role to play, and you better play it. It teaches you about balancing time, crisis management and communication. You learn so much. A week doesn’t go by that I don’t grab someone and tell them about applying. I feel very strongly about the program and can’t speak more highly about what it did for me.
Deeply passionate about agriculture and her community, Laura Giudici Mills (29) is a generous leader and role model who thrives on volunteering.
“With volunteering, there’s a sense of satisfaction that we’re giving back for the benefit of our community, whether that community is our neighborhood, our city, the region or our industry,” said Mills, a fourth generation farmer and owner of LGM Consulting. “Giving back is very important, and contributing time and knowledge is just as important as contributing financial or other resources.”
Mills’ first significant volunteer effort was the Salinas River Channel Coalition (SRCC), which she helped establish in 1995 following disastrous flooding that destroyed some of her family’s farmland. She wanted to help bring together growers, landowners and local, state and federal agencies to work on the improvement and continued maintenance of the river.
For 13 years Mills was an SRCC board member and also served as chairperson, secretary and consultant, helping the coalition become a successful partnership between diverse stakeholders. SRCC honored her with a Special Recognition Award in 2008 for her service and dedication to the coalition.
“I took a lot of what I learned with SRCC and applied it to the various efforts I work on now,” said Mills. “I’m most passionate about efforts that involve stakeholders with diverse backgrounds, opinions and interests.”
Mills has donated her time and expertise to a dozen industry and local groups. She currently serves on the Yuma Safe Produce Council, the Grower-Shipper Association Food Safety Advisory Committee, Hartnell College Food Safety Advisory Committee, and California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement Technical Committee. She has also been involved with Ag Against Hunger; the Independent Growers Association; National Steinbeck Center; Produce Safety Alliance; Monterey County Water Resources Agency; and the Farm, Food Safety and Conservation Network (FFSCN).
With much of her volunteer and consulting work centered on food safety and environmental matters, Mills is accustomed to tackling challenging issues.
“California’s food safety and environmental regulations are particularly challenging because of a lack of understanding on behalf of buyers (retail, food service, etc.),” she said. “Many have their own food safety requirements that they’ve put into place, and often these requirements put the growers in conflict with compliance for food safety and environmental regulations.”
Education is key. Mills said FFSCN is an example of people working together to support efforts to reduce food safety risks while co-managing on-farm conservation practices through education, training, research and outreach. “We’ve succeeded in educating policymakers in California and D.C. Now we want to deliver our messages to produce buyers to help them understand the challenges growers and shippers face.”
One volunteer experience that stands out for Mills focused not on a challenging issue, but on a remarkable individual. She said a memorial luncheon for local ag leader Jim Manassero (1) was one of the most gratifying and special events she’d ever participated in.
“Jim didn’t want a memorial service upon his passing, so my husband and I thought about organizing a luncheon to remember him,” said Mills. “We were overcome by the response. It was a very special gathering. The room was alive. Jim had touched all of us in some way and we wanted to share our gratitude. Jim did things because it was the right thing to do. He was an inspirational leader and mentor to men and women in and outside the industry.”
Like her mentor, Mills is a proven leader who exemplifies the leadership skills that she said are essential for work and volunteerism: honesty, integrity, respect and appreciation for others, a positive “can do” attitude, listening and communicating. In 2010, she received the Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce Agricultural Leadership Award for showing commitment to the betterment of the agricultural industry, as well as leadership, ethics and integrity.
Mills said that the most fulfilling aspect of working in agriculture is being part of an industry that produces safe and healthy food for our nation and world. “I thoroughly enjoy working alongside ag industry families – people who are passionate about agriculture and stewards of the land. It’s in our blood.”
On Ag Leadership
Ag Leadership better prepared me for industry leadership and community advocacy. It taught me about the commitment to giving back and lifelong learning. It strengthened my communication skills, whether with media interviews, recognizing personality styles or debating controversial issues. An important life lesson is, ‘How can we educate people outside of our industry so they can better understand us?’ Ag Leadership is extremely valuable for personal and professional development.
Most people retire after they’ve worked full time for 40 years. Not Steve Gomes (14).
After nearly four decades in education – 24 years as an ag teacher and 15 years as an administrator – he decided to run for Merced County superintendent of schools and lead the Merced County Office of Education (MCOE).
“My primary reason for seeking the post was because it was an opportunity to make a difference countywide,” said Gomes, who took the reins in January 2011. “I had accumulated a level of experience and skills that I thought could help create opportunities for kids in the county.”
MCOE helps the county’s 20 school districts serve 54,000 K-12 students with curriculum and instruction, career and alternative education, business services, technology, early care education, special education, teacher credentialing, and other activities.
As superintendent, Gomes oversees a $93 million budget and 1,200 employees. He is also developing a leadership institute for MCOE managers/supervisors. The goal is to foster leaders who will inspire and motivate – not just direct – the employees they supervise. (The course of study will be based on research by Santa Clara University’s Barry Posner and James Kouzes.)
“I came to the job with some main objectives,” said Gomes. “I wanted to collaboratively set goals within MCOE to set the organization's direction, increase student academic achievement, foster a college-going culture and career transition for students, and improve the facilities and participation at Camp Green Meadows, an outdoor school operated by MCOE.”
Gomes said that he’s fortunate to work with a great group of people who are passionate about their work and achieving the goals.
Gomes has always been passionate about education. Growing up on the family dairy, he knew during his sophomore year in high school that he wanted to be an ag teacher. Just three and a half years after graduating from Merced High School, Gomes returned to teach – and he remained at the school for 24 years. He estimates that he taught and advised 3,000 students during his tenure.
“Teaching agriculture and serving as an FFA advisor is an extremely challenging job, but very rewarding,” said Gomes, who coached two national FFA championship teams. “It requires conducting more than 100 activities outside the classroom in addition to teaching a full schedule. The skills and proficiencies needed to conduct activities and teach subjects are innumerable. I sought others with the expertise I needed to learn in order to do my job effectively.”
Gomes said he hopes he served as a role model for students by working hard and having high expectations. Affirmation came while campaigning for superintendent, when some of his former students came up to him and shared their memories of high school ag classes. “Teachers live for that,” he said.
There was a time, however, when Gomes questioned his career. “When I entered Ag Leadership, I’d been an ag teacher for about 13 years and thought my skills could be better utilized in industry. One night, a classmate and I discussed my career plans and he said he envied me because my work touched lives. His ag teacher had made a difference in his life and he was sure I was doing the same for many students. That conversation removed any doubts about my career path and I returned to teaching with renewed passion.”
Eventually, though, Gomes made the leap from teacher to administrator. He served as vice principal for Golden Valley High School, principal for Hilmar High School and superintendent for the Planada School District. “In each position, I discovered that I could make a difference and set a direction.”
As for retirement, that’s far down the road. He may run for superintendent again in 2014.
On Ag Leadership
“Ag Leadership expanded my horizons and changed my life. It took the blinders off. The seminars touched on topics that were engaging and dealt with all of society, not just ag. I saw the big picture for the first time and how things are related in the world. My Ag Leadership experiences played a role in running a difficult race for superintendent.”
On Leadership Skills
“In working with people, the most important trait is being honest while maintaining sensitivity. Trying to lead using positional power is not effective. Collaborating and including the people affected by changes or decisions will create buy-in and tasks will be executed more effectively. Organizations need to build capacity in all their employees, especially in their leaders. People have to grow and develop in order to improve what they’re doing and the organization.”
Like many in agriculture, Michele Laverty (37) wants to educate people of all ages about the production of food and fiber. The ways in which she wants to educate them are rather unique: one is an amazing 53-foot mobile laboratory called Ag in Motion, and the other, a 65,000-square-foot National Ag Science Center.
They are ambitious projects to pursue, but ones that Laverty knows will make a difference.
The National Ag Science Center is the nation’s first science center focused on agriculture. The idea for the center emerged from local farmers some 50 years ago, but the concept gained momentum in the mid-1990s. Laverty came on board with the project as a volunteer about 15 years ago before moving into her current position as director in 2003.
Once built, the interactive state-of-the-art facility will highlight the science and technology of agriculture through engaging exhibits, educational offerings and curriculum. The building will be located on the Modesto Junior College campus.
Today, however, the vision has changed to meet current economic realities. Just over a year ago, Laverty’s board of directors decided to take a new course of action and develop Ag In Motion (AIM), the mobile laboratory that brings the field trip to students to teach them about science and technology in agriculture and career opportunities in the industry. Laverty worked with a team of middle school teachers to develop lesson plans in line with state science standards.
Unveiled in summer 2011, AIM visits middle schools free of charge. Seventh graders and their science teachers spend a class period inside the trailer conducting one of five hands-on ag science experiments, such as DNA extraction or light and chromatography. Students also watch a video about ag-related careers.
“Ag in Motion is beyond everything we wanted it to be,” said Laverty. “We’re reaching kids who aren’t in agriculture and helping them understand how science is involved in food and agriculture.”
AIM has reached more than 5,000 students since August and the response has been overwhelmingly positive, said Laverty. “The students are doing their own campus TV programs and writing in their yearbooks about their experience. There’s such a wow factor. It’s making a connection. The labs are reaching kids about ag science.”
As for the future, Laverty said they have a grand vision to build a fleet of mobile educational vehicles that would traverse the state and offer insight into agriculture at schools, farmers markets, county fairs and community events. “It’s important for people to understand what we do in agriculture and I don’t think we do enough in the science arena,” she said.
Laverty oversees all aspects of the National Ag Science Center and AIM, including marketing, design, volunteer and staff management, and fund development. “Many factors contribute to raising awareness and raising dollars,” she said. “You have to make your project relevant and a necessity. We have to show that what we’re doing is really important to people in agriculture and outside agriculture. The success of our projects benefits not just agriculture, but the entire state.”
The National Ag Science Center also offers seminars for teachers to learn more about the ag industry and how they can incorporate ag into their science classrooms.
Laverty is a fervent advocate for the center and AIM at the local, state and federal level. As such, she draws from her Ag Leadership experiences, her role as a California Association of Museums board member, and her educational background – a bachelor’s degree in public relations and minor in chemistry.
“It’s been amazing to work with the people I work with and to be a part of their passion for the industry and their desire to educate people about agriculture,” said Laverty.
On Ag Leadership
“Ag Leadership pushed me to try new things. The international trip pushes you way beyond your comfort zone and you return willing to take more risks. It encouraged me to continue reading and learning from people, opportunities and experiences. It taught me that it’s not just the amount of time you put into volunteering, but the quality of that time. The people we met along the way had such a phenomenal impact in our lives.”
On Leadership Lessons
“Surround yourself with people who challenge you. Listen and learn. You can learn from your biggest critic. Public speaking – being able to spread your message and being comfortable talking in front of a group – is the biggest asset. And having a mentor you can model and learn from is very helpful.”
In the past two years, Glenda Humiston (25) has driven tens of thousands of miles all over California with a mission: to help rural businesses and communities prosper.
“We have to make sure rural communities are healthy and thriving, so I focus my energy on job creation and economic opportunities,” said Humiston, California’s state director of USDA Rural Development. “We have win-win strategies that are helping to ensure businesses have the tools they need to expand and create jobs.”
USDA Rural Development administers and manages housing, business and community infrastructure, and facility programs through its national, state and local offices. Programs are designed to improve the economic stability of rural communities, businesses, residents, farmers and ranchers. Rural Development invested just over $1.3 billion in California during fiscal year 2010; most of that was direct loans and loan guarantees, with about $62 million in grants.
Humiston said her office works with farmers and ranchers, but also with local officials, schools, food banks, health clinics, tribal governments, non-profits and businesses. Since being appointed in August 2009, she has traveled the state talking to these diverse groups about available resources and funding.
In 2010, Humiston organized listening sessions/forums at 43 sites throughout California. From those sessions, she produced a 72-page report titled “Jobs, Economic Development and Sustainable Communities: Strategizing Policy Needs and Program Delivery for Rural California.” Humiston and her staff then went to work with stakeholders to implement the report’s findings and develop strategies from the public and various groups.
“We got funding to do certain projects that are new twists on economic development,” Humiston said. “We enlisted different people to collaborate and not duplicate efforts. We got a lot of folks to then go to work implementing.”
Then, during a three-month period in early 2011, Humiston hit the road again. She conducted town hall public forums in all 58 counties – in small rural towns and major urban cities – to discuss activities resulting from that 2010 report. At the forums, she tried to help people understand what’s in it for them and encouraged them to take advantage of what USDA Rural Development offers.
She said increasing awareness was essential. “A lot of citizens, especially in urban/suburban areas, aren’t familiar with our programs and don’t realize that rural development is crucial to overall economic development. In fact, the best opportunities currently available for California to create good jobs and economic growth lie in pursuing expansion of value-added agriculture.”
One of the projects: five regional industry cluster initiatives that foster sustainable growth and business development in rural areas. Initiatives focus on biomass, value-added livestock, renewable energy, food production and alternative ag development.
Another project is the California Financial Opportunities Roundtable, a partnership with the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, various financial firms and academic institutions, to find ways for people to access capital and spur job growth. With this project, Humiston has engaged several Ag Leadership alumni.
“Access to capital and financing is a huge issue,” she said. “The recession has really dried up credit and financing, and people are hurting out there.”
Humiston is also excited about efforts to connect farm communities with urban consumers and create more markets for farm products. “This value-added ag chain measure is really going to benefit California,” she said. “We need to get the urban/suburban public to see the potential of this value chain economy.”
As with this job, Glenda has infused her enthusiasm into public service work for more than 25 years – as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tunisia, as deputy undersecretary for USDA Natural Resources and Environment during the Clinton Administration, as a consultant on ag and environmental issues, and while working with legislators. She has continued to show dedication to public policy development and program implementation supporting rural development and sustainable communities.
“The small towns and rural areas face challenges and dramatic new opportunities. I’m committed to working with communities and entrepreneurs to meet those challenges head-on.”
On Leadership Skills
“Communication is #1. If you can’t get your vision and message across, there’s no way for people to understand it or collaborate with you. It’s also important to have that vision and see the bigger picture. Be creative.”
On Ag Leadership
“The two-year program is world class, outstanding. I got a lot out of it because the curriculum is so broad-based. It’s an educational opportunity that not many people get to experience. It’s kind of designed to create ‘Renaissance people.’ ”
In the early 1970s Bob Atkins (17) was a political science/history major, with sights on pre-law, at CSU Long Beach. On a whim, he took an entomology course, and then promptly changed his major.
Four decades later he can look back on a distinguished public service career, one that started and ended with an emphasis on bugs. Atkins retired this past May after 38 years serving Southern California ag/urban communities - 33 years in Los Angeles County and five in San Diego County.
That entomology class was somewhat of a career calling. After graduation Atkins became an ag inspector for the L.A. County Department of Agriculture, working on pest exclusion, pest detection trapping, pest eradication and produce inspection.
In September 1975, two years after joining the department, Atkins discovered the first Mediterranean fruit fly in California. This early career accomplishment led him to new and exciting work and leadership opportunities.
“As Pasteur said, 'Chance favors the readied mind,'” said Atkins. “The Medfly opened doors for me. It got me onto the first sterile eradication of an insect (Medfly) in U.S. history. Everything was new and we were inventing stuff as we went along. Sometimes you have to take that leap of faith. It also gave me opportunities for supervision, organization and problem solving.”
Atkins went on to manage L.A. County's fruit fly and pest prevention programs for 11 years. He also served as deputy director of weights and measures for seven years. He later became chief deputy of the department, a position he held from 1999 to 2006. Atkins was appointed San Diego County's ag commissioner/sealer of weights and measures in 2006.
In both counties, Atkins worked on the huge problem of invasive pests such as fruit flies, Asian citrus psyllid, light brown apple moth, red imported fire ant and glassy-winged sharpshooter. As ag commissioner, he oversaw inspections, trappings, quarantines and eradication measures. He collaborated with local and state entities, and was a resource for the ag community, the public and the media.
“When a pest crisis came up, we'd have to drop everything to focus on it,” said Atkins. “But I really enjoyed working in pest eradication, because I got to work with the very best people in the industry. When there's a crisis, it really puts everyone's problem solving skills to the test.”
In addition to pest problems, Atkins needed to be fully informed on countless issues, laws, regulations, violations, ordinances, and budget/funding problems. He acknowledges his staff for helping balance it all. “I had great people. You'll die if you don't delegate; there just aren't enough hours in a day. You can't develop the next leaders if you do it all yourself and don't give others a chance to succeed.”
Whether the subject was bugs or budgets, certain leadership skills were essential. “Communication, teamwork and the art of compromise are so important,” said Atkins. “Conflicts arise from misaligned expectations, so constant communication and clarification is key.”
Communication and education were especially important when he worked with legislators on key issues. During his tenure in San Diego County, Atkins was active in state and federal legislation, including the Farm Bill. Among his accomplishments as president of the California Agricultural Commissioners and Sealers Association, he campaigned for much needed pest detection and exclusion funding. “We must constantly take our message and issues to legislators, provide them with facts and be an information resource,” he said.
Atkins said he liked being on the agency/bureaucrat side of public service. “I spent 38 years working with the ag commissioner system and it was an amazing experience. I had a part in public policy without having to get elected. I enjoyed being a problem solver and teaching others.”
These days Atkins is enjoying, but still adjusting to, a slower-paced lifestyle. He and his wife, Anne, ride horses and grow cherimoyas, figs and citrus on their Fallbrook farm. No doubt he's keeping an eye open for bugs.
On Ag Leadership
“It taught me about networking and collaboration building through communication. I learned about taking a wider view and how to find the best solution.”
“I've been involved with the D.C. Exchange for many years, going back to D.C. to recruit and helping with tours when the group came here. My whole experience with Ag Leadership - first with the class, then with DCX - really prepared me for when I went back to educate legislators in D.C.”
Create hope, change lives and make a difference.
That’s exactly what Julie Spezia (26) has been doing by helping build decent, affordable homes through Habitat for Humanity.
Julie has been a dedicated Habitat volunteer for more than 15 years. She initially worked on local projects in the Sacramento area, and then turned her attention to international work after reading about a Global Village trip to Northern Ireland.
The overseas project seemed like the perfect volunteer adventure: Julie enjoyed Habitat work, loved to travel and she had been studying Irish dance (she discovered the joys of dance while on her Class 26 international travel seminar). The trip became the first of five that Julie would take to Northern Ireland.
“Every 18 to 24 months, I’d go back to do a build,” said Julie, who has worked on housing issues as executive director of Housing California since 2004. “We were able to meet so many different people and work alongside people that actually live there.”
The Global Village trips were in some ways similar to Ag Leadership experiences, said Julie. “The local Habitat affiliate really wanted us to understand the troubles and challenges there from different perspectives. We spent time with government and religious leaders at the same time we were building homes. We got a fuller picture of the country, the people and the culture. I began to really deepen my understanding of Northern Ireland.”
Julie took on additional duties when she led two future build trips. “There were a lot of responsibilities as a leader,” she said. “I interviewed and selected the teams, handled money, created agendas, coordinated meals, worked on logistics and planned extracurricular activities. But it was great to have that challenge. It was like being an Ag Leadership presiding fellow for two weeks! Then I’d have to decompress upon returning to the states.”
After the five trips to Northern Ireland, Julie decided to volunteer in a different country. She read about Habitat’s Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project – an annual, internationally-recognized weeklong build held at a different location each year with volunteers from around the world – and wanted to get involved. In 2009, the location was the Mekong region, so Julie traveled to a village in Cambodia ready to pick up a hammer and build homes.
“Cambodia was a much different experience than Northern Ireland,” said Julie. “I was really stretched, with the tropical heat, different building materials, and language challenges. Our house team spoke five different languages.”
A seasoned pro with six Habitat trips under her belt, Julie led her third Global Village build trip to a new destination – New Zealand – in October 2010. Her team of 11 volunteers from the United States and Canada spent two weeks building a home in Poirura on the North Island.
Julie said that her experiences with Habitat reaffirm the great satisfaction in doing physical labor – working with your hands to build something. “It’s a reconnection to our working roots, and something very different from my desk job,” she said. “That’s the part I’ve really enjoyed.”
She admits that volunteering is not always pleasant and can sometimes be thankless, “but it’s so enriching and rewarding. I can’t imagine my life without it. People need to really embrace it and feel good about it. Be a leader where you can be most effective and happiest. Don’t compare yourself to other leaders.”
While Julie’s humanitarian leadership has helped families realize their dreams with Habitat homes, she is now pursuing a dream of her own to live abroad. This August, Julie will head back to New Zealand to live full time. “I got to a point in my life where I thought, ‘I can do this now.’ My children are grown and I look at this as a second act in my life.”
Julie plans to maintain her Habitat connection, helping with fundraising and special projects in her new home away from home.
On Ag Leadership
I learned to always keep growing and challenging myself. Ag Leadership helped me continually ask myself how I can keep improving and keep sharpening my saw.
You really start to think of yourself as a true leader and you put yourself forward. It’s as though you’ve been “tapped” to be a leader. You really own it after going through the program.
It is a huge time commitment, but it’s such a great return on investment. With businesses, they see results almost immediately with their employees that are going through the program – the improvement in their lives and work, and actively providing leadership in organizations.
Dino Giacomazzi is a fourth generation dairyman and farmer who is quite savvy with social media.
He writes a blog titled “Dino Giacomazzi – Saving the world one cowpie at a time!” He uses Twitter, where his name is @dairydino and the page features photos of cows. He’s on Facebook, and he has a LinkedIn profile, which lists his current role as an experienced milk procurement executive. On YouTube, Dino can be seen in a Real California Milk campaign commercial, a social media presentation and an interview with Dairy Today.
With his various social media efforts, Dino is “agvocating” – advocating for agriculture – and wants others to do the same. Dino began using social media several years ago, concerned by the negative perception of farming by consumers. Early on he wanted to encourage fellow farmers to jump on the social media bandwagon to spread positive words about agriculture. “I focus on trying to get farmers engaged in the process,” said Dino. “I figured I could reach many more consumers by getting a lot of farmers to start doing it. More and more farmers are getting on board every day.” Dino said that if farmers are passionate about their industry and have an interest in advocating for it, they can look to social media as a beneficial tool to connect with consumers. “Before we get attacked by groups on issues, we want to show people what we do on our dairy. We want people to have access to us to get the facts. Consumers will believe farmers if farmers tell their stories.”
Dino’s online essays, messages and opinions – mostly educational, sometimes humorous – are targeted to farmers and consumers. For farmers, though, he aims to teach them about social media technology and effective communication techniques. One of his most popular blog postings, with 6,000 views, is titled “Top 10 Android apps for farmers (and iPhone too)."
In addition to online outreach, Dino shares his social media expertise with ag groups through presentations and workshops. The presentations used to be more of an intro to social media, but now, with the majority of his audiences engaged in social media, he focuses on what farmers should be writing. “I’m trying to share with people in agriculture the importance of telling our story because we have a very positive story to tell.”
Having spent 13 years in the music industry and five years in San Francisco developing internet software before returning to the dairy, Dino said he has a slightly different perspective on how to reach out to urban, non-ag consumers. “It’s important to let people see that farms are mainly owned by families and not corporations,” said Dino. “We’re trying to show people the reality of today’s dairy system. We want them to see that we’re responsible caretakers of animals and excellent stewards of our environment.”
Dino said it isn’t necessary to spend a lot of time using Facebook or Twitter to advocate for agriculture. “Even something as simple as posting a positive comment about a negative article on a newspaper website can be very powerful and can have a major impact on the public perception of agriculture. Everyone can participate at whatever level is comfortable to them.”
Making A Difference Through Conservation Tillage
Dino has become a leader in conservation tillage, which he began practicing several years ago through a Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) program. “The idea of conservation tillage is to produce more crops with fewer inputs, such as water, tractor passes, fuel, fertilizers and pesticides,” said Dino.
In 2009, he received the Conservation Tillage Innovator Award by the University of California Conservation Tillage Workgroup and NRCS. In 2010, he was recognized as the Sustainable Agriculture Champion by the EPA Region 9 Environmental Awards. Dino was selected by EPA for incorporating cultural practices, such as strip-tillage, that are sustainable environmentally and economically.
Working with NRCS and the University of California, he initiated the first demonstration evaluation of a strip-tillage corn planting system in the Central San Joaquin Valley. Dino has hosted numerous demonstrations and field days, which have led to strip-till adoption in more than 25,000 acres in California. He has also participated in studies that will provide a better understanding of the relationship between dairy operations and air and water quality.
“The award was a bit of a surprise to me, and I appreciate the fact that EPA recognizes conservation tillage as sustainable agriculture,” said Dino. “ This system of farming requires technology to achieve fairly radical reductions in inputs which cuts out a lot of pollutants. We get more crops for less, it’s a win-win for everyone.”
On Ag Leadership
“Ag Leadership was amazing and I can’t say enough good things about it. The education is invaluable, and one of the most important things I got out of it was the friendships.”
“It gives you a broad view of the world. It takes you out of your normal element and exposes you to things that you would’ve never been exposed to. Having that depth can affect you and make you a better person because you can relate more to things going on in the world.”
Ranching has been in Nita Vail’s family for four generations – and she has worked tirelessly to ensure that the ranching lifestyle is preserved for generations to come for other families.
Born and raised in the Santa Barbara area, Nita spent much of her childhood on Santa Rosa Island off the coast of Santa Barbara, where her family ran a successful cattle ranching operation. Her family owned the island from 1901 until 1986 – when it was legislated in the Channel Islands National Park – but have continued to operate under a special use permit that ends in 2011.
Firmly ensconced in ranching, Nita earned a degree in ag business management from Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, and an MBA from Santa Clara University’s Institute of Agribusiness.
After a period of time ranching in Bakersfield, Nita was appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994 to serve as CDFA’s assistant secretary of agricultural and environmental policy. She has also worked as an agribusiness and environmental consultant, an assistant product manager for Foster Farms and a market analyst for Cattle-Fax.
This background, along with an Ag Leadership education, helped prepare Nita and give her solid credibility for leading the California Rangeland Trust (CRT).
CRT was founded in 1998 by a group of innovative ranchers in the California Cattlemen's Association (CCA) who wanted to start a statewide land trust using agricultural conservation easements.
“At that time, I was approached by CCA leadership to serve on the new board while I was finishing working for Gov. Wilson,” said Nita. “I thought this would be a real opportunity to bridge gaps and actually find solutions that work for the ranching community.” She transitioned to executive director in 2001.
Even with her extensive knowledge of ranching and agriculture, Nita admits there was plenty to learn.
“My background was agribusiness and policy; I didn’t know much about the nonprofit world,” said Nita. “Land trusts are an entirely different business model, and conservation easements were fairly new at the time. There was a very high learning curve for all of us on the board.”
Starting from scratch, the CRT board faced a few hurdles.
“In the beginning, the challenge was that we thought we’d be helping just a few ranchers, but when the trust was built and a few conservation easements were closed, the floodgates opened,” said Nita. “We have a very long waiting list and a pretty impressive portfolio of properties. The continual challenge is capacity building.”
Another challenge was dealing with confusion and uncertainty within the ranching industry about CRT being formed. Those concerns were eased, however, because of trust. “We wanted to bring a rancher-friendly business approach to land trusts. We work with ranchers every year in positive ways, and we understand the issues and family dynamics. We’ve always had the highest standard of practices.”
Relationship-building and collaboration is vital with ranchers, but also with the agencies, foundations, legislators and other entities that CRT works with.
This year, Nita was one of six recipients of the prestigious James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award. She was honored “for her collaborative, effective approach to the long-term protection of California’s ranch lands,” according to the foundation. “Nita has helped forge unlikely alliances and built the rancher-governed trust into one of California’s most successful land conservation organizations.”
She is quick to point out that the award and accolades really belong to the entire CRT organization.
“I was very honored, but there were so many people that helped make CRT what it is today,” said Nita. “It was a powerful experience.”
The award provided $125,000 to support CRT’s efforts. “We didn’t realize how significant the award is in the foundation world; it has really elevated our star as an organization and opened doors for us,” she said.
Nita focuses on some key factors for success: strong leadership, clear and defined goals, and the “80-20” rule, which she frequently uses. “Find the 80 percent you have common ground on and leave 20 percent on the table. When you get caught up in that 20 percent, you waste a lot of time. I look for what works and how to help move something forward so it can be productive and positive.”
Nita applies this to CRT and other entities she serves on, including the California Council of Land Trusts Board, California State Fair Ag Advisory Board, Santa Cruz Island Advisory Board and CDFA’s Scientific Panel on Environmental Farming.
“I really believe in agriculture’s important contributions to the environment, economy, our culture,” said Nita. “Our society needs agriculture to succeed and to teach the next generation to farm and produce food. Wherever there’s an opportunity to bridge gaps and find solutions, I’ll be interested and committed.”
On Ag Leadership
“The program had a huge impact on me. It was definitely life-changing. It built my sense of self and gave me more conviction about what I thought and how to bring it into the world.”
“The long-term impacts of this program on society are so significant. Look at what graduates are contributing to the industry and communities.”
“I love mentoring high school and college-age women. And I love supporting kids. I have five god children very active in my life.”
200,000 acres in conservation easements.
45,000 acres to be added by June 2011.
500,000 acres on the waiting list.
Bob Graham and his Class 2 fellows shared incredible experiences during their trips to Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia, and Russia, Lebanon, Iran and Israel.
But it was during the 1973 trip to Guatemala when Bob witnessed something very disturbing that had a lasting emotional impact and ultimately led him to devote his life to service and philanthropy.
“Our time in Guatemala included the countryside, the highlands and the coastal areas,” said Bob. “Mayan Indians were brought down to coastal area farms. I was so struck with the poverty and terrible living conditions that the farmers endured. There was low pay, low life expectancy, malnutrition, high infant mortality. It was the first time I’d witnessed that.
“I thought that someday, if I’m successful, I’d like to help people in that type of circumstance. I just held onto that thought.”
Bob said that the thought of serving and giving became stronger, and it started taking on another dimension when he talked to people about it. In 1976, he left a successful career as a CPA and businessman, and by the early ‘80s stopped working full time. He reached a point where he was financially successful and faced a crossroads in his life.
He decided to follow through on his thought.
A decade after his Ag Leadership trip, Bob founded the Katalysis Partnership, a non-profit that provided a “hand up” – not a “hand out” – to poverty-stricken people in rural areas of war-torn Central America. He wanted to help farmers do something viable, so he focused on integrated rural development. He used his own money and raised funds.
At the same time, Bob launched his “50–50 at 50” plan: at age 50, he would begin to devote 50 percent of his time and 50 percent of his resources to service to others.
Through the late 1980s and 1990s, Katalysis operations were established in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Bob also started the non-profit Belize Enterprise for Sustainable Technology; he worked with local co-ops and provided management services, training and consulting.
“We introduced commercial papaya growing to Belize,” said Bob. “We also worked with cacao growers, a floundering industry at the time, to stabilize and expand it. Papaya and cacao are now major crops in Belize.”
Using his CPA and business background, Bob switched the focus of Katalysis from rural development to microcredit. Working with established partners in Central America, small loans were provided to enterprising people living in poverty, particularly women, to help build their businesses.
Katalysis grew to be a very successful venture, but ultimately became too large. Bob liquidated the U.S. operation in 2004 and transferred all ownership to the Katalysis Network of Central America. The organization is now operated by 15 non-governmental microfinance lenders with 250,000 active borrowers.
“My idea was always to transfer resources from the north to the south – money, knowledge, organizational development and technical assistance,” said Bob. “Then we would transfer all the power to local people. We accomplished our mission.”
Bob now volunteers his time for NamasteDirect, a project of Namaste Foundation (he started the Foundation to teach his six children and stepchildren how to save money and use money for service). Like Katalysis, NamasteDirect is committed to alleviating poverty in rural communities of Guatemala and southern Mexico by providing impoverished women entrepreneurs with microcredit loans. They also receive a business mentor, vocational training workshops and business education.
“We’re really focused on research and development,” said Bob. “In nine months, we increase an average woman’s annual net income by $480 at a training cost of $120. It's a lot of money for people who live on $1.50 to $2.50 a day. We’re small and involved in every aspect of the operation.”
NamasteDirect has its own fellowship program that educates students about international development, microcredit and global philanthropy.
Following numerous speech requests about his successes, Bob decided to write a book: “50-50 at 50: Going Just Beyond.”
“A lot of people thought it was unusual that a business guy wouldn’t keep going on with business success and making money, but instead turned to helping people,” said Bob. “I was hopeful that my story would be useful and provide inspiration for others to consider active service and philanthropy.”
On Volunteerism and Giving
“It’s important for people to think about how they can devote time to the service of others. You not only see the humanity and beauty of human beings, you get to experience it in yourself.”
“How do we improve and change things? We have to get out of our comfort zone. When you’re passionate about something, you attract people who want to help you.”
On Ag Leadership
“In some respects it was more of a liberal education that broadened my appreciation for other things in the world and exposed me to so many things I wasn’t familiar with. It expanded my horizons and my capabilities.”
Ann Thrupp has been interested in food production and land/environmental stewardship for most of her life, and her passion about those topics has exposed her to an impressive variety of educational, career and travel opportunities.
“My interests in farming and agriculture go way back, partly because my grandparents and my parents had vegetable gardens and grew much of their own food, and I’ve always enjoyed gardening,” said Ann. “My father’s father had a fascination with plants, nutrition and natural resources. Some of my earliest memories are of being in our vegetable garden with my family.”
While in junior high school, Ann learned about world hunger and population issues in a science class, and wrote a report about world food issues – foreshadowing her future.
Fast forward a few decades. Ann became a member of an esteemed National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Committee on Systems Agriculture, which released a mammoth 598-page report – “Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century” – this past June.
“It’s unusual for industry people to serve on these committees; I was honored and humbled,” said Ann, who was a member of another NAS committee in the early 2000s. “Serving on both committees were valuable experiences.”
Ann has authored numerous other reports, plus several books and more than 50 published articles concerning agriculture, environmental policy and related topics.
Ann became interested in sustainable development and farmers’ livelihoods while an undergrad at Stanford University. Stanford wasn’t exactly an “ag college,” but she made the most of her double major in human biology (emphasis on ecology/environmental studies) and Latin American studies.
“I immersed myself into farmers’ issues and natural resources, and I got into sustainable farming issues long before it was popular,” Ann said.
After Stanford, Ann received her master’s and doctoral degrees in development studies from Sussex University in Brighton, England. A Marshall Scholar and Fulbright Scholar, she focused her education on agricultural/rural development, environmental management, and sustainable agriculture. Her studies, along with a fluency in Spanish, allowed her to study, teach and do research in Costa Rica and other parts of Latin America.
Following nearly a decade of university education – interspersed with consulting and teaching – Ann became director of sustainable agriculture at the World Resources Institute, a “think tank” in Washington, D.C., where she directed research, policy and educational programs.
“World Resources was a great opportunity to be engaged in international work,” said Ann. “Collaborating with many organizations was exciting.” Ann’s overseas work and research experience took her to more than 20 countries throughout the world.
But after nine years at WRI, Ann became motivated to work in the United States. She returned to California for a position with the Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco, a job she considered “a positive opportunity to find win-win situations in agriculture.” Ann worked closely with the wine industry on numerous issues.
It was during her stint at EPA that she began the Ag Leadership Program. (In her second year, she changed jobs and joined Fetzer Vineyards).
“During my interview for the program, I was asked why I wanted to be in Ag Leadership when I’d had so much international travel and a Washington, D.C. background,” said Ann. “I thought that Ag Leadership would be an important experience and would further my education. I wanted to immerse myself in California agriculture and know the people.”
Ann gained a lot from the program, and also felt that she brought something different to the group as a person with a background in sustainability, international environmental issues and farming. “Ag Leadership was a great learning experience,” said Ann. “I truly enjoyed the sessions and interaction with all of the people involved.”
In 2003, Ann landed her first ag industry job. As manager of sustainability and organic development at Fetzer Vineyards, she has many responsibilities – grower relations, technical advice to growers about organic and sustainable practices, educational programs, communication, and coordination internally and externally about sustainable practices used at Fetzer and Bonterra vineyards.
She’s active in other organizations, including consulting for the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (she was the part-time director for two years), and serving as a board member of the Organic Farming Research Foundation and the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission.
Ann is deeply connected to the vineyards, the land and resources – while still retaining those memories of the gardens of her childhood.
“I’m passionate about my work and what we’re doing at Fetzer and Bonterra. I’ve worked for many years to bridge agriculture and natural resources, and feel a strong commitment to sustainable and organic agriculture. I think this approach to farming makes total sense and is good for everybody. We can make progress when we work together.”
Several years ago, Rosemary Talley received the United Fresh Produce Association’s Women in Produce award recognizing outstanding female industry leaders. It was a well-deserved honor for someone who started out typing invoices and filing for Talley Farms, and became a respected leader and force in the male-dominated profession of produce sales and marketing.
Rosemary was also somewhat of a pioneer in Ag Leadership. In 1988, she was the first “over 40” participant. As for the age factor, Rosemary said, “It was really interesting to relate to and learn from classmates that were much younger, and in turn, they could learn from me.”
Ag Leadership has been a family affair. Rosemary’s late husband, Don, was in Class 2 and a former board member, while their son, Brian, was in Class 30. Their involvement with Ag Leadership is extensive. Rosemary and Don hosted D.C. Exchange fellows and helped with the regional golf tournament. Rosemary also participated on the applicant screening committee. In addition, Rosemary and Don established the tradition of an annual barbecue, originally held at Tar Springs Ranch, that brings together alumni and current fellows during the Cal Poly seminar.
Rosemary said her time in the program was life-changing and made her more open-minded. “Our international trip to India was challenging because it really took me out of my comfort zone; I was not ready for what I experienced,” she said. “Being in the program challenged me emotionally, mentally and physically.”
Aside from Ag Leadership, Rosemary has made an indelible mark in the industry and in her community. She served on the Western Growers Association’s Retirement Security Plan board, the Santa Maria Valley Producers Cooperative, and two terms on the United Fresh Produce Association’s board.
“Previously I had focused on local or California issues, so United got me more involved in national politics and how various federal agencies impact California farmers,” she said.
Locally, the Talley name is synonymous with giving back. Rosemary was a founding member and spent 12 years on the board of directors for the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center at Cal Poly. She is currently working on a fundraiser commemorating the 25th anniversary of the board’s launch. She also served on the Cal Poly College of Agriculture’s advisory council.
Near to her heart is the foundation that was established in 1993 in honor of her daughter, Marianne, who passed away in 1993. The Marianne Talley Foundation is a nonprofit that funds four-year scholarships for college-bound students from Arroyo Grande High School. Three separate scholarships in the names of Marianne, Don, and Don’s father, Oliver, are awarded each year. An annual Cioppino Dinner with chef Tim Sugishita (30) and an annual fun run through Talley Vineyards help fund the scholarships. “It’s a wonderful way to honor the memories of Don, Marianne and Oliver,” said Rosemary.
Rosemary said that volunteering for anything from kids’ activities to industry boards has allowed her to learn new things and meet new friends. “Volunteering returns benefits to my community and my industry, and is very rewarding personally.”
In 1980, Craig McNamara and his wife, Julie, bought a 123-acre farm in Winters, Calif., and thus started a career and journey in agriculture and education.
Over the course of 30 years, Craig’s Sierra Orchards – primarily 400 acres of organic walnuts – has become much more than just a farm and main source of income. It has evolved into an innovative educational resource that showcases Craig’s environmental stewardship and sustainable conservation efforts.
The farm is home to the highly-respected Center for Land-Based Learning (CLBL), a statewide program dedicated to teaching high school students about sustainable agriculture. The center administers two other programs that bring together farmers, activists, politicians, researchers, students and community leaders for tours, workshops, seminars and field days.
The idea of giving back to society has been engrained in Craig since childhood. The farm was a way for Craig and Julie to invest their energy in things that are important to them and to society.
“As we became landowners and stewards of the farm, I realized we had an incredible resource – an open-air classroom and natural science lab,” said Craig. “The farm serves as an amazing connecting point for high school students who will eventually be our community leaders making decisions about our natural resources that directly impact farmers and consumers.”
CLBL began as The FARMS Leadership Program, founded by Craig in 1993. He started out bringing high school students to the farm for hands-on, science-based projects. In time, and with the vision of CLBL Executive Director Mary Kimball (32), the program grew and became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2001. Today, CLBL reaches more than 2,000 students each year through programs across the state.
The center has been incredibly fulfilling for Craig because of the return on investment – seeing students connect with nature. “It’s absolutely critical that we engage our youth in our food systems,” said Craig, the father of two grown sons and a college-bound daughter. “The benefits to the students we serve are significant and long-term, and continue to inspire us.”
Craig said that his Ag Leadership experiences helped him visualize the educational model that became CLBL. He also recognizes Ag Leadership as perhaps the most important leadership experience of his adult life.
“I continue to treasure it and support it,” said Craig. “When my class joined together, it was really remarkable – the team building, the bonding, the focus. Working with each other to increase our awareness was both challenging and exciting.”
Craig’s dedication to the industry extends beyond his farm and CLBL. He serves on the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences dean’s advisory council, the Agricultural Sustainability Institute advisory board, and Roots of Change stewardship council. He’s been a member of the State Board of Food and Agriculture for 10 years, and will soon join American Farmland Trust’s national board. He received the prestigious 2007 Leopold Conservation Award, an honor he shares with the people who work at CLBL and the farm.
“For me, the greatest enjoyment in my life comes from collaborating with people of divergent backgrounds and points of view,” said Craig.
Giving back to the community and to the educational entities that have enriched her life is a major focus for Lori Cardoza. She approaches volunteering with passion and a positive and appreciative attitude.
One way that Lori combines volunteering with family is by spending a lot of time at her children’s school. She and her husband, David, have four sons.
“My husband and I talk about how fortunate we are to be involved in an agricultural lifestyle and career that we are passionate about. This same passion also drives how we spend our volunteer time, which revolves mainly around our children, their school and activities,” said Lori. “If we can be with our children and serve other children, it’s a win-win.”
Lori also gives back to her community by helping another local school – the College of the Sequoias (COS). She said that her Ag Leadership experiences were beneficial when she was appointed to a significant leadership position.
“It was a challenging time at COS when I started serving and I had to learn quickly,” said Lori, a COS alum who has served as a trustee since 2003. “I hit the ground running. It took me about a year and a half to wrap my arms around everything, since it was all new to me, and then I felt like I was an informed and effective board member. We have a great board that works well together and whose main priority is to serve the college and students.”
Lori also sits on the agricultural advisory committees for the high school and COS ag programs, and is a member of Tulare County Dairywomen. In the past, she served on boards and committees for Tulare County Farm Bureau, California Farm Bureau Federation and the World Ag Expo Ag Leadership Breakfast.
Lori acknowledges that she’s fortunate to have a flexible, part-time work situation – she’s a partner in the family dairy business – that is conducive to her family and volunteer duties. She gives credit to Ag Leadership for showing her how to balance it all.
“Ag Leadership really gives you a broader perspective of where you can serve and how you can be more effective,” said Lori. “It taught us about leadership, living a balanced life, and that serving has so many positives. Ag Leadership exposed us to so many different people who were doing this passionately and effectively – all around the world, not just in our country or town.”
In the early 2000s, David Pinkham, of Fort Bidwell, Calif., read about CNFA’s international Farmer-to-Farmer Program in Capital Press. Having farmed for many years, as well as traveled and lived overseas, he was intrigued. A simple phone call to CNFA led to numerous volunteer trips to former Soviet Union states.
The Farmer-to-Farmer Program provides voluntary technical assistance to farmers, farm groups and agribusinesses in developing and transitional countries to promote improvements in food processing, production and marketing.
Assignments have taken David to Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and Georgia. In Ukraine, he worked with a group of scientists – who had 25,000 acres of farmland between them – on fruit packing and marketing. In Belarus, he worked with the 600-member Belarus Independent Farmers Association. “I spent three weeks traveling around talking with them in groups, mostly about marketing. They were happy just to talk with an American farmer.”
In Georgia, his most recent trip, he offered his agricultural and technical expertise on cold storage technologies, including pre-cooling techniques, for fruit. He also advised farmers about marketing practices.
“I’ve never seen a culture that didn’t have fascinating people involved in agriculture,” said David, whose motivation for volunteering is his love and appreciation for agriculture. “I look at the Georgians, who were tormented by the Soviet Union, and their spirit is so enthusiastic and optimistic. I enjoyed the interaction and seeing their way of living. I have an appreciation for their humanity.”
David’s agricultural background includes many years running the Tulare County family farm, which he did while in Ag Leadership, and being involved in large-scale farming in Arizona. He stopped farming in the early 1980s, and moved to Europe for several years, where he sold produce.
David reflects on Ag Leadership as a wonderful experience – the education, networking, ideas and travel seminars. His class visited Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia and Egypt, with the trip ending at FAO in Rome. “When you go on an Ag Leadership trip, it’s a lot more focused and intense. You’re more exposed to problems and solutions of other countries.”
When he’s not traveling overseas, David, father of two daughters, tends to his extensive garden, drives mules, volunteers at an elementary school and helps with starting a local hospice. “We need to get back to community and help each other, and ask what we can do to benefit all beings.”
Since the inception of Ag Against Hunger in 1990, nearly 160 million pounds of fresh produce have been donated to feed the hungry.
That astonishing number may not have happened if it weren’t for an experience and an idea that Tim Driscoll had during his Ag Leadership national travel seminar in February 1988. “I had no idea how that day was going to change my life and the lives of so many people,” said Tim, general manager of Valley Pride in Castroville.
Class 19 split into groups to work with various charitable organizations in Dallas. Tim’s group delivered groceries to senior citizens – some ill or disabled – who were living below the poverty line in slum-like neighborhoods. At one home, Tim and a classmate talked with an elderly, bed-ridden woman about her health and living conditions.
“It was depressing situation, but this lady was smiling and telling us about all the good things in her life,” said Tim. “It struck me at that moment that simple things can bring such joy into a dismal existence. The act of bringing groceries went so much further than I ever dreamed it would.
“That day stayed with me for a long time,” he said. “I kept thinking about how lucky we were to live on the Central Coast, but also how impossible it would be to have that same kind of situation here. But we did. I thought maybe we could figure out how to help people by giving them some of the area’s wasted produce – back to the idea of bringing the grocery bag. I was determined to do something.”
“Wasted produce” equaled about 20 percent of surplus harvest that never made it to the store for various reasons. Often, extra produce that couldn’t be sold wound up in the landfill or tilled under.
While in Dallas, Tim talked with classmate Bonnie Fernandez, who recommended he talk with her brother, Jess Brown, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau and a Class 13 alumnus. Tim eventually met with Jess, who gave some direction and suggested talking with Willy Elliott-McCrae, program director of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Cruz County.
There was a growing concern at the food bank about supplying food to the working poor and malnutrition with children. The food bank was only able to help about 35,000 people each month in the tri-county (Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Benito) area. At the time, only 10 percent of the donated food was fresh produce, so bringing in tons more would have a huge beneficial and nutritional impact on those who couldn’t afford it.
“Farmers had always been interested in donating, but the process then was cumbersome,” said Jess, who was already involved with Second Harvest when Tim contacted him. “Tim’s idea was exciting because it was something that could really work – people could get fresh produce, it would streamline the process for the food banks, and make it easy and convenient for farmers and shippers to donate.”
Tim, Jess and Willy spent more than a year planning the organization and talking with many agricultural businesses who shared their enthusiasm. In time the non-profit, mostly volunteer-operated Ag Against Hunger (AAH) was in operation.
The program is simple. Growers call AAH when they have a surplus. Trucks collect the produce from more than 50 different growers and shippers in the tri-county area. It is then distributed to food banks that make the donations available to more than 240 nonprofit human service agencies. The donations feed 75,000 low-income people in the tri-county area each month, as well as hundreds of thousands more throughout California and the West Coast.
Today an average of 10 million pounds a year is shared with people in need. “The first year we set a goal of 50,000 pounds and we brought in 250,000 pounds,” said Tim. “We thought that was the greatest thing ever.” Jess said that AAH has exceeded its goal every year since. “To think about where we are now, with millions of pounds donated each year, it’s amazing,” he said.
In addition to the grower-shipper donations, the community gets involved through AAH’s gleaning program, which coordinates the picking of crops left after commercial harvest and donates the produce to local food banks and pantries. “Groups and schools come out to collect the produce from the fields and understand the hard work that goes into farming,” said Jess.
Over the past 19 years, many Ag Leadership alumni have been involved in AAH. Tim and Jess agree that the organization is an example of Ag Leadership’s values and mission. “I learned from Ag Leadership that good leaders need to be responsible and learn about how to serve a community,” said Tim. “Had it not been for the perspectives brought to me during Ag Leadership, I may have never considered the possibility of Ag Against Hunger or done anything about it.”
Said Jess, “One of the things that Ag Leadership hopes to do is broaden participants’ outlooks so they can make a difference in their communities. Establishing Ag Against Hunger provided a vehicle for growers and shippers to make a huge difference by helping those in need.”
Tim acknowledges that it took a lot of hard work and planning to start AAH, and nearly two decades later it still requires the same dedication to sustain it. “It was incredible to start from zero and brick by brick put together an organization that has garnered so much success and is so beneficial to the people who need help in our community and beyond.”
On one particular day in March, Nicole Van Vleck had a packed schedule: a bank board of directors meeting, an interview with a reporter, a California Rice Commission meeting, a Northern California Water Association meeting, and work at the office.
Many of her days can be like this, balancing volunteer work for about 10 different groups and a full-time job.
Her job is managing partner of the 2,500-acre Montna Farms in Yuba City, one of the largest U.S. growers of Japanese super premium short grain rice (Tamanishiki). The company has received many accolades for its state-of-the-art farming practices and conservation measures.
Nicole is actively involved in all aspects of the operation – growing, drying, overseeing staff, making sure financials are in order; and moving forward special projects, such as conservation easements.
“We work with conservation organizations like Ducks Unlimited, and we’ve put many acres under farmland easements,” said Nicole. “It’ll ensure that this land will stay in farming for a long time.”
Nicole didn’t return to the farm right out of college. Instead, after graduating from UCLA, she worked for a few years as a legislative analyst for the law firm of Morrison & Foerster on land use, environmental and agricultural issues – experience that would later prove valuable in her position with Montna Farms and with ag groups. But after getting married – her husband is Stan Van Vleck (Class 30) – Nicole realized that the ranch really needed someone from her generation.
She has now been with the company for 15 years. Her move to Montna Farms made her a third generation Sutter County rice farmer, working with family on a daily basis.
“When I first started my dad (Al Montna) said, ‘Just make sure it all works!’ And he’s still like that today,” said Nicole. “I’m very lucky because he’s not a micromanager. But he does place very high standards on all of us.”
Al Montna has always been involved in the rice industry on all levels, and that volunteer work ethic influenced Nicole and the staff to also be active in the agricultural industry. “If you’re involved in a commission or organization, you’re more informed and you’re better on the farm because of it,” said Nicole.
Nicole’s commitment to numerous industry groups shows her leadership. In February, she was elected vice chair of the California State Fair Agricultural Advisory Council. She was appointed by the U.S. secretary of agriculture to the state committee of USDA’s Farm Service Agency in 2005, and was committee chair when her term expired at the end of the Bush administration.
Nicole is also on the board of directors of River Valley Community Bank, and she serves on the California Rice Commission, Northern California Water Association, Lower Butte Creek Project, Sutter Bypass Butte Slough Water Users Association and the Garden Highway Mutual Water District. Outside of agriculture, she is involved with school and sports activities for her two children.
“I tend to participate in things that are not only pertinent to the farm, but that are in line with my strengths and where I can add some value,” she said. “If I do something, I want to be able to do it well and really participate, not just show up.”
Nicole also gives back to Ag Leadership, which she considers a highlight of her life. For the past several years she has helped John Weiler (Class 22) organize a recruitment event held at Montna Farms. “We’ve always had a great number of attendees who not only apply, but get accepted. That’s kind of how we measure our success.”
She acknowledges that volunteering can be very time consuming, but the industry needs people to be involved. “We all need to step up and do what we can.”
For many years, John Muller has actively worked with colleagues on important issues for industry, regional and local groups. But interacting and talking with children at his family farm in Half Moon Bay is much more enjoyable and rewarding.
“Farmer John” and his wife, Eda, operate Farm John’s Pumpkin Farm and Daylight Farms, where they grow 40 varieties of pumpkins and some other crops. Twelve years ago, the couple thought it would be a good idea to grow pumpkins so children and their families could experience a real pumpkin farm.
Originally, elementary school students planted the pumpkins in May and helped harvest them in October as a school fundraiser. John and Eda then decided to open to the public so more people could visit a farm. Since then, the pumpkin farm has become an annual trek for school field trips, as well as a popular destination for locals and travelers from other states and countries.
“We have 15 employees and we all work very hard to keep our farm operating,” said John, a lifelong resident of Half Moon Bay. “With this farm, we’ve really had to reinvent ourselves to stay in agriculture.” That doesn’t mean bringing in fancy theme rides or commercialized activities. They keep it simple and fun with what they have: the pumpkin patch, hay bale pyramid, cornfield, teepee and an old tractor.
The hard work is appreciated by more than just the everyday pumpkin patch visitor. John has been recognized as a leader in promoting sustainable urban agricultural practices at the state and national level. In April, he received the U.S. EPA Region 9 Environmental Award for his efforts to protect and preserve the environment. In August, John and Eda were honored with the prestigious Presidential Volunteer Service Award for their leadership in farm practices and volunteerism. “Dedicated volunteers like the Mullers are inspiring others to join them in delivering America a brighter, healthier future," said U.S. EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson.
In true Ag Leadership style, the Mullers are giving back via their farm. Throughout the year, John talks to thousands of people and conducts numerous tours, explaining the benefits of environmentally-friendly farming to farmers and urban neighbors. They have special days for underserved children and those with developmental and physical disabilities, who come to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the farm. For school children in East Palo Alto who cannot afford to travel to Half Moon Bay, John takes the farm experience – and pumpkins – to them.
“We are most proud of what we do at our farm. The number one thing is that we not only share our commodities, but we share our property and our spirit of giving,” said John, who has two daughters and two grandchildren. “We experience lots of emotions here at the farm. There are so many special moments that re-energize us.”
In addition to the long hours on the farm, John has given his time to numerous groups. For Ag Leadership, he spent nine years as a Foundation board member and served in chair positions for ALA. He has served as a San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board member for 12 years, seven of which as a board chair. John is a member of the U.S. EPA Local Government Advisory Committee and a former member of the Coast Side County Water District Board. He is currently in his first term as vice mayor for Half Moon Bay. John said he attributes many opportunities to Ag Leadership and his family supporting him during the program.
But all the plaques, awards and recognitions aren’t what motivate John to farm, volunteer and give back. “My wife and I say, ‘People that volunteer don’t keep track of their hours!’”
Many family members – spouses, siblings, parents and children – have gone through the Ag Leadership Program over the years and share both common and unique memories of their experiences.
Norman and his nephew David Martella were separated by 16 classes, but they share a special Ag Leadership connection due to their extensive involvement in the D.C. Exchange.
It all started with the first Exchange in Fresno, Salinas and San Francisco, albeit in different capacities: Norman was helping organize the fledgling program and David was serving as bartender. While serving those drinks, little did David know that many years later, after graduating in 1994, he would be following in his uncle’s footsteps as a D.C. Exchange volunteer.
Norman and David have not only hosted and helped arrange the program when it toured through Region 7, but they have also traveled back to Washington, D.C., for many years as part of the hard-working selection committee.
“D.C. has always been fun. Lots of hard work, but very rewarding,” said David, a former Region 7 director for eight years and Ag Leadership Alumni (ALA) president for two years. “I’ve enjoyed the Exchange for the experience, and the growth part of it was huge. It’s been a great way to stay connected to the program.”
Norman shares the sentiment. “The Exchange has been one of my favorite Ag Leadership activities,” said Norman, who served for several years as a board member of the Ag Leadership Foundation and the ALA. “I had some good input and I was able to help it grow. That was very important to me.”
Norman eventually stepped down in the mid-90s and handed off the torch to the “younger blood.” However, when the Exchange rolls back in to Region 7, Norman said he’d be there to help.
In addition to the Exchange and other Ag Leadership activities, Norman and David have lent their time to numerous industry and community organizations. In recognition of their contributions, they received Ag Leadership’s Profiles in Leadership award – Norman in 1995 and David in 2006.
“It was nice to recognized for the Profiles in Leadership award,” said David. “It’s a tremendous honor when other people acknowledge your accomplishments.”
Although appreciative of the honor, both are quick to point out that volunteering isn’t about getting the accolades, it’s about being effective and getting the job done.
“A lot of us (graduates) have volunteered and when you try to think of everything, it’s hard to remember,” said Norman. “It’s history, you did what you had to do and you felt really good about it.”
David agrees. “I realize that highlighting graduates’ volunteer activities is in some ways a reflection of the program,” said David. “But there are a lot of people who are quiet and unassuming who don’t really need the recognition. There are those who don’t necessarily want to tout that they sit on three or four boards, whether it’s industry or church or school or other community organizations.”
As far as graduate volunteerism, David said that every class is different – some have two or three graduates who are involved and some classes have 15 or 20 active graduates. “It goes back to what you got out of Ag Leadership,” he said. “I personally felt that I couldn’t give enough back to repay what I got. It’s not a dollar amount, although if I had the money 15 years ago I probably would’ve given money! But I didn’t, so I gave time.”
David believes that in order to be an effective volunteer, it’s important to have drive and desire. “If I can’t affect positive change or be a positive influence, I don’t want to be a part of it,” he said.
So what is it about Region 7 that brings out great volunteers such as the Martellas? Said Norman, “Our region is pretty cohesive. The Salinas Valley is very active as far as production is concerned. The industry is very supportive of the Ag Leadership Program. We’re involved because the produce business is so highly involved in government relations and regulations. We’ve got a number of very good graduates here and we just do it, it’s that simple.”