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April 16, 2007

Leadership lessons learned through program

Group in San Fransisco
Ag Leaders with a San Fransisco cable car. Pictured from left are Tom Porter, John Bizic, Art Bradley and Sue Leggett. (Natalie Hampton photos)

What do Brazil and California have in common with North Carolina agriculture? This winner, a group of 32 agricultural professionals recently visited both places to learn lessons they will need to lead North Carolina agribusiness into the future. The group members are part of a two-year leadership training program offered by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The young growers and agricultural professionals, who represent the full spectrum of North Carolina agriculture, began the Agriculture Leadership Development Program in fall 2005. In January and February, group members participated in two educational tours to learn leadership lessons from Brazilian agriculture and, closer to home, California agriculture.

The program is a newer version of the College’s former Philip Morris Agricultural Leadership Development Program, which was open to tobacco growers. The new leadership program, sponsored in part by Tobacco Trust Fund, Golden LEAF, North Carolina Farm Bureau and a number of North Carolina commodity organizations, is open to all types of agricultural professionals.

Leadership for the program included veterans Dr. Bill Collins of N.C. Agricultural Research Service and Dr. Billy Caldwell, associate director emeritus of North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. Dr. Lanny Hass and Eleanor Stell of North Carolina Cooperative Extension’s Personal and Organizational Development group also served as organizers and trainers for the program.

The program strives to build leaders by teaching them to manage and lead issues and giving them the skills they need to compete, Hass said. The training focuses on the mastery of self, relationships and finally, social action.

"This program has provided effective leaders in a number of areas who have been successful in relating agricultural interests in the policy-making process," said Collins, who has worked with the program since 1986.

"We’ve seen growth in personal identity capabilities of participants to deal with issues more effectively and become leaders on behalf of agriculture,” Caldwell said.

The trip to Brazil gave the leaders a close-up look at Brazilian agriculture and the country’s potential as a global competitor, Stell said.

Of the two experiences, many said the California trip provided lessons more relevant to North Carolina. And while the learning experiences focused on agriculture, the lessons were related to leadership. In Marin County, a rural county outside of San Francisco, the group learned about farmland preservation efforts, marketing rural products to an urban audience and working across philosophical boundaries toward the common goal of water quality.

Prior to the trips, the ag leaders – many of whom hold N.C. State degrees -- participated in a variety of training programs and identified five focus areas they wanted to explore further. This spring and summer, they will work in groups to complete practicums in the focus areas.

The five areas include: increasing the use of biodiesel; educating the public about North Carolina agriculture; using agriculture to enhance green space; ensuring an adequate supply of farmworkers; and using the 2007 Farm Bill to ensure a safe and secure food supply.

The group that focused on the Farm Bill conducted legislative visits in Washington, D.C. One group member told Stell that without the experience from the leadership program, he would not have had the knowledge or confidence to conduct such a visit.

Ag leaders in field
Group members look over a field of calla lilies damaged by California's January freeze.

On the California trip, the group began in San Francisco with a tour of the downtown Ferry Market, a successful farmers’ market that brings rural growers and urban customers together two days a week. But more than a sales arena, the market is sponsored by the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture as a means of teaching the public the lessons of sustainable agriculture and local food systems.

The next four days, the group traveled north and then south of the city to visit key California agricultural areas. Each day, the program was hosted by county Cooperative Extension directors who introduced the group to issue leaders in their counties.

In Marin County, the group explored the rural side of the rural/urban relationship. They visited the Hog Island Oyster Company –a Ferry Market vendor – to see how oysters are produced and harvested in the waters of Tomales Bay, part of the Pt. Reyes National Seashore. The group learned how Marin farmers add value to their operations and manage urban growth, issues that North Carolina growers also are facing.

Even the lunchtime meal in Marin provided a lesson on local food systems. The group enjoyed a feast created from all-local products, including pasture-fed beef, eggs, produce and even heavy cream for the (not local) coffee.

In Monterey County, the group learned lessons of crisis management, talking with Dale Huss of Ocean Mist Co. Huss and other Salinas Valley lettuce and spinach growers were caught in the crossfire last year when bagged spinach grown in the area became contaminated with E. coli bacteria. Huss advised growers to be prepared for such a crisis.

The group also learned how Salinas growers were coping with the loss of aquifer water because of saline infusion. Waste water from Monterey County communities is recycled through a three-step treatment process that makes the water suitable for food crops. Treated water is pumped to local fields for irrigation.

The group ended its tour in Fresno and Tulare counties, the first and second largest agricultural counties in the U.S., still reeling from a January freeze that destroyed the citrus crop. Frost-damaged oranges still hung from trees, while at the Kearney Research and Extension Center, faculty members looked for ways to determine the extent of damage to naval oranges.

Lessons learned? Be prepared for natural disasters. Jim Sullins, Tulare County Extension director, told the group the January disaster marked the third 100-year freeze to hit central California since 1993. Even with that experience, growers ran short of propane to heat orchards, some watering systems failed and other freeze protections were not enough to save the crop. In early February, half the local orange packing sheds were at 50 percent capacity, and 50-70 percent of the oranges were believed lost.

Perhaps the biggest concern for Tulare and Fresno growers was that 6,000-7,000 agricultural workers were out of work due to the freeze. Growers, who feared the workers would leave the state, organized relief efforts to help keep the workers in California.

Group photo
Members of the Ag Leaders group at Hilarides Dairy.

The participants have a great deal to say about their leadership program. Many point to relationship skills they have gained that have improved not only their professional relationships but those with friends and family as well.

"The real value to me is what I’ve learned about myself and how I interact with other people. I wish I had known this 20 years ago," said Richard Melton, Anson County agricultural Extension agent. "It has changed the way I look at developing Extension programming."

Billy Slade of Beaufort County, an agribusiness sales manager, said that learning to discuss high-stakes/high-stress issues had saved the jobs of three fellow employees. Being able to sit down to discuss a difficult personal matter had prevented two employees from resigning and a third from possible firing.

Keith Waller, a Wayne County grower who farms with his family, said the leadership training had made him a better manager and a better person. He is now more willing to call on other farmers for help or to discuss practices. When a corn bin at his operation burst, he turned to fellow leader Brandon Warren to ask for assistance.

Warren said the program had given him "friendships for a lifetime," as well as a group of peers who could work together to address challenges for agriculture. "I am more willing to serve in a leadership position now," he said. "It’s been a privilege to be able to participate in this."

Sue Leggett of Nash County, who farms with her husband, said the program has taught her better interpersonal skills and given her confidence to work with and inform other groups about agricultural issues. "This program has introduced me to methods and ideas for improving the interface between the agricultural industry and the general public," she said.

Davie County grower Stacy Walker, who kept a journal of his Brazil and California experiences, said the program had given him the confidence to try new things. "I don’t know yet the path this program has started me on, but I know I’m stepping more boldly now," he said.
-N. Hampton

Posted by Natalie at April 16, 2007 04:15 PM