Recent graduates of the California Agricultural Leadership Program say they came away from the 17-month program more informed about themselves than they were about the fields in which they work – and rightly so.
Within the title "California Agricultural Leadership Program" may be a misnomer, according to a recent graduate. The program isn't about teaching people to be better farmers, ranchers or agriculturalists, but according to its mission statement, is a place to "grow leaders who make a difference."
Since the first class of leadership fellows in 1970, the program has helped build leaders who became stalwarts in agriculture. Fifty years later a new crop of leaders indicates they're up to the challenges facing them, their respective businesses and the agriculture industry.
Late last year Class 50 of the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation was inaugurated at a gala in Clovis, Calif. Later this year the program that sows new agricultural leaders will celebrate its golden anniversary in Monterey at an event largely aimed at nurturing critical networks within an industry said to be just 1% to 2% of the U.S. population.
That event is planned for Oct. 22-24 and is slated to include a discussion moderated by Class 13 fellow and former U.S. Representative Cal Dooley that will include former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Foundation President Barry Bedwell, a graduate of Class 13, says it's perhaps the networks built through the program more than anything that sustains the agriculture industry. Still, fellows admit that the laser-focus on building leaders is what drew them to the program.
"The program is great at putting a mirror in front of you," said Ian LeMay, Class 48 alum and newly named president of the California Fresh Fruit Association.
LeMay says early months of the program teach fellows how to handle conflict and assess how others perceive them. Much of this time is spent taking personal assessment tests and gaining an understanding of abilities, weaknesses and biases.
"You must learn how to lead yourself and how you affect others before you can be a good leader," LeMay said.
Though classes in the last few sessions have evolved to be evenly split between men and women, that wasn't always the case. It wasn't until Class 7 that women first entered the program. Since then the participation by women involved in the program increased steadily, as it has in agriculture and society in general. Now half of the 24 fellows within the program are women, a transition Bedwell says is reflective of society in general and agriculture in particular.
Peggy Perry entered class nine of the prestigious program as a young faculty member at Cal Poly Pomona. She recalls the point early in her career in academia that even in those circles women were thought to have a better place in society than the workforce.
"When I was in the class early on there were still people grumbling saying this isn't right, but this was 1978 and, in my career, and in ag leadership women were a new feature," Perry said.
Much has changed in the past 40 years and "many more women are out there doing things in leadership with organizations and companies," she continued, noting that more women than men are now enrolled in the college of agriculture at Cal Poly Pomona.
Perry has since retired from the plant sciences department at the university and now devotes considerable time to coaching fellows in the ag leadership program.
That coaching process began with Class 42 as part of an overall curriculum change. Perry is now the executive coach, helping expose fellows to personality traits they should address to be more effective leaders, or ones they can exploit for greater service to the agriculture industry.
Pricilla Rodriguez, director of Food Safety for Western Agricultural Processors Association in Fresno is one of a dozen women embarking on a 17-month journey with Class 50. She says she looks forward to the coaching and leadership training that is a significant part of the leadership program.
"I'm at a point in my career where this program can help elevate me to be a more positive, impactful advocate for the ag industry," Rodrigues said.
Much of Alyssa Houtby's professional career after graduating Cal Poly San Luis Obispo less than a decade ago has been spent with California Citrus Mutual, a membership-based commodity organization representing much of the state's citrus industry. Houtby will soon graduate with 23 other classmates from Class 49.
Houtby's early exposure to agriculture came through Future Farmers of America while attending high school on the California Central Coast. Now she heads up CCM's government affairs program after starting with the association as its communications director.
"This program is designed to make you think critically about yourself and how you can grow as a leader," Houtby said. "The program really forces you to question your unconscious biases. It puts you into situations you probably otherwise wouldn't voluntarily expose yourself to."
One such situation she highlighted was a class trip to San Quinten and the opportunity to speak directly with inmates serving life sentences, and to walk through death row.
For Lauren Noland-Hajik, a graduate of Class 48, the program greatly helped her grow personally and professionally. Noland-Hajik is an attorney with the Sacramento-based firm of Kahn, Soares and Conway. Much of this firm's work centers on lobbying efforts for California agricultural associations.
"Communications is a majority of my job," she says. "Having a program that helped strengthen my communications skills and adapt those skills to whatever situation or negotiation I am in has been immensely helpful."
Tricia Stever-Blattler gained experience through Class 34 that she uses today as executive director of the Tulare County Farm Bureau.
"I was 26 when I started the program and very young in my career, so this was a huge opportunity for growth and to see myself through others in the program," she said.
As an advocate for Tulare County farmers, Stever-Blattler says the training provided helps her in an industry that includes "complex situations" and "diverse opinions."
As one of the youngest members and one of only seven women in her class, Stever-Blattler said the guidance and mentorship from the older classmates and other women in the program was inspirational both professionally and personally.
Class 24 fellow Holly King remembers the early days of her professional career in agriculture lending and how difficult it was then as a woman in the male-dominated field. Today King is a leader in the California almond industry, serving as board chair of the Almond Board of California, a federal marketing order that continues to be an industry leader on issues of environmental sustainability and effective marketing.
King says the program was a catalyst in her personal growth as it gave her the tools she uses today to continue this path.
"Those tools keep motivating me to be a better person and servant for the ag industry," King said. "I learned many things about my personality and how to use those traits effectively for the industry. I learned that I have a strong 'j' for judgmental, which I have had to work with to keep it subdued such that I can be open to opportunities that would otherwise get passed by."
California Citrus Mutual President Casey Creamer admits he wouldn't be the new leader of a respected commodity association that represents about 80 percent of the state's fresh citrus industry had it not been for his participation in the leadership program. As a fellow of Class 47, Creamer says California cotton farmer Mark McKean encouraged him several years ago to apply for the prestigious leadership program.
At the time McKean was board president of the Kings River Conservation District and Creamer ran a joint powers agency as part of KRCD's efforts.
"He really encouraged me to apply to the ag leadership program, and not long after I graduated there the opportunity here at CCM came up," he said.
Creamer was tapped during a national search and purposeful succession plan to succeed long-time CCM President Joel Nelsen. Hired in 2018 as vice president of CCM, Creamer spent the next year shadowing Nelsen and members of the organization's board. A year later the succession plan was complete as Nelsen would retire and Creamer would be named president by the board.
"I would not be here today had it not been for the ag leadership program," Creamer said.
Though the program is titled "ag leadership," Creamer says agriculture is not the focus of the program – leadership is. "People think you're learning about agriculture, but really it's a leadership program for professionals in agriculture," he said.
"The first seminar you sit in with this program you realize you're there because you have potential and because you have things that you need to work on to get to the next stage in your career," he continued.
Like Creamer, LeMay is a young professional whose involvement in a leadership program was encouraged by another.
LeMay's time with the California Fresh Fruit Association can be traced back several years when the association was called the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, and Bedwell was its chief executive. Bedwell served as president of the association for 13 years before leaving to assume leadership of the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation.
LeMay recalls Bedwell asking him during his job interview if he would be interested in attending the leadership program. As the new chief executive of CFFA LeMay now asks new hires similar questions to gauge their desires for leadership training and professional development.
The Agricultural Education Foundation is a non-profit public benefit corporation. In concert with four California universities – Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo; Cal Poly, Pomona; Fresno State; and, the University of California, Davis – the program trains early- to mid-career agricultural professionals on tenets of leadership. Within this training are a series of personality trait assessments aimed at exposing strengths, weaknesses and biases.
Modeled after a similar program in Michigan, the California program gained significant financial footing in the early 1960s through donations by the Kellogg Foundation, Boswell Foundation and Irvine Foundation. Bedwell credits the philanthropy of J.G. Boswell II for sustaining the program.
After several years of curriculum development and study of the Michigan program, Class 1 of the California program began in 1970 under the direction of Bob White. Bedwell is the eighth chief executive to lead the program, starting in 2016 after successfully leading the California Fresh Fruit Association for more than a decade.
According to Bedwell, the program gained in popularity and influence for much of the first half of its existence. Like many other programs, ideas and businesses, that upward curve peaked, "and so there was a period of time, particularly from 2000 to 2010, that there was much discussion about what needed to be done to improve the program," Bedwell said.
Questions began to surface about whether the program should continue or take a hiatus as similar programs across the United States had, he continued.
"The foundation had some hard decisions to make and two people made all the difference in the world to it," Bedwell said. Those people, according to Bedwell, were past foundation board chairperson Lauren Booth, and his predecessor, Bob Gray, who led the organization from 2009 to 2016.
Bedwell credits Gray and Booth with leading efforts to redesign the curriculum as part of a rebuilding effort. Through that rebuilding effort curriculum changes began to help fellows assess personality traits, strengths and weaknesses. That became the catalyst to change, which attracted renewed interest in the program and application rates that today well-exceed space available in the program.
"Last year we had an all-time record of 150 people applying through Phase One of the application process," Bedwell said. Through that process of accepting applications and winnowing down the best applicants, Bedwell said they had to engage in a prescreening process to get the number of those called for personal interviews down to 70 applicants for 24 slots.
Perry cautions folks considering the program to seriously investigate it first before applying. "Talk to people who've been through the program," she said. "I also think it's important to already be involved elsewhere in the industry. You need to go out and do things so that you understand where you need to grow. Whatever experience struggling you have is a good way to say 'whoa, I really need this.'"
Outside of considerable time commitment for the program, which includes national and international trips, and regular seminars at four participating universities – Fresno State, University of California, Davis, and the Cal Poly universities at Pomona and San Luis Obispo – the program is free to fellows through donations to the non-profit foundation. Given the estimated cost of about $50,000 to train a fellow through the program, Bedwell says the foundation expects fellows to assume leadership roles in agriculture and their local communities.
Today the program boasts over 1,300 alumni that have gone on to serve in public and private organizations. It's not the training in agriculture that makes this a premiere program, Bedwell says, but the leadership acumen instilled in fellows that is critical to the sustainability of American agriculture and the building of successful communities.