Changing leadership at an agricultural organization after nearly four decades with the same executive at the helm is the culmination of about five years of planning and discussions on how to sustain the kind of influence the California citrus industry has built.
After serving nearly a year as executive vice president of the influential California Citrus Mutual, Casey Creamer was elevated to association president as long-time president Joel Nelsen steps back to assume the role of handling federal regulatory issues that affect the industry under the new title of “strategic advisor/past president.”
Creamer’s appointment to lead the membership trade association that boasts a membership of about 2,500 California citrus growers comes at a time that has no shortage of critical issues.
A deadly citrus disease called Huanglongbing (HLB) threatens to wreak similar havoc in California as it has in Florida and Texas, though it has yet to be found in commercial California groves; an ongoing trade war between the United States and other countries continues to worry farmers; and the recent reported discovery of a pest in a shipment of fresh citrus from California to New Zealand just adds to the mix of issues the new executive must address.
Creamer comes to CCM after working with the Kings River Water Quality Coalition and the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association. The announcement came nearly a year after Creamer was tapped to be executive vice president of the organization as part of a succession plan years in the making.
“If you believe in leadership and you believe in sustaining the value and strength of the organization, then this was necessary,” Nelsen told Western Farm Press.
About two years ago Nelsen and board leadership hired a search firm to find a new president, one who not only had the ability to work with a board of directors and its members, but one who understood the complexities of California agriculture.
Creamer was the local ag representative with a deep knowledge of California issues and a business acumen the board wanted to work on its behalf and the behalf of its 2,500 members.
Creamer graduated Fresno State with a degree in business administration with an emphasis in marketing. He took this training to the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association under the leadership of Earl Williams, ironically at a similar time in that association’s history when succession planning was under way to groom Williams’ replacement. Then-Vice President Roger Isom was picked to later succeed Williams as Creamer was hired to be the assistant vice president of administration and technical services, a position Creamer says evolved during his time there to handle more regulatory issues and less internal administration.
“I effectively learned how to drink from the fire hose while I was there,” Creamer said with a chuckle.
“Earl was a master of working with people, while Roger did well working the technical end of things. This was a good combination. I was supposed to be the guy to sort of bridge that and do both during the transition, which was difficult at times,” he continued.
Creamer watched the California cotton industry transition from over 750,000 acres of production to under 200,000 acres.
Creamer left the cotton industry for an association heavily involved in San Joaquin Valley Water issues. Among its many facets, the Kings River Conservation District is the leading resource management agency for the Kings River region, serving agriculture, business and residential communities within 1.2 million acres of Tulare, Kings and Fresno counties.
Creamer comes to CCM at a time of internal growth and change as the organization’s members continue to be challenged by regulatory burdens foisted upon them by the state legislature.
“The biggest industry in California is not agriculture or even Silicon Valley; it’s government,” Nelsen says. “Government has affected so many industries, and in many cases in a negative way.”
Nevertheless, CCM believes citrus and agriculture in general have a part to play in California’s overall success.
“We’re an important part of the success of California,” Creamer added.
Without spelling out specific issues, Creamer says CCM will look to find “the middle, common ground” on issues not simply involving the citrus industry, but within agriculture. Nelsen added that much of CCM’s success over the years, and its leadership position today in agriculture is because the organization took on issues with ramifications and beneficiaries beyond California citrus groves.
Still, Creamer knows that continuing to keep citrus issues at the forefront for his members is important.
“I think that many of the things challenging the citrus industry and our members are not unique to citrus,” Creamer said. “We have issues involving labor and immigration, water, regulations and a host of pest and disease issues that are part of broader industry concerns.”
Like his predecessor, Creamer talks unity within the citrus industry and agriculture. Nelsen says that while the citrus industry “can beat each other up over market share,” he cites an example of unity that two years ago garnered about $7 million in donations from competing citrus companies to build a biosafety level three laboratory in Riverside to find a cure for HLB.
“If we’re not unified it’s easier for the opposition to pick us apart,” Creamer said.
Part of this effort must include effective communications with elected officials, regulators and the public, he says.
“It’s important that our elected representatives understand agriculture,” he continued. “We also need to talk with people who have no understanding or appreciation of agriculture, or who frankly don’t care about it.”