Perspectives Online

Expanded Horizons - North Carolinians learn agricultural leadership lessons in California and Brazil.
BigStock Photo: Luca Biagiotti
What do Brazil and California have in common with North Carolina agriculture? This past winter, a group of 32 agricultural professionals visited both places to learn lessons they will need to help 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.

From San Francisco, Tom Porter, John Bizic, Art Bradley and Sue Leggett traveled to nearby rural Marin County, where they learned about local-product marketing, farmland preservation and water-quality efforts.
Photo by Natalie Hampton
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The program is a newer version of the College's former Philip Morris Agricultural Leadership Development Program, which was open to tobacco growers.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 is open to all types of agricultural professionals.

Leaders of the program included veterans Dr. Bill Collins of the 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.

Group members (top photo) visit San Francisco's Ferry Market, a farmers' market that brings produce, such as these flowers (above), from rural growers to urban customers.
Photos by Natalie Hampton
The program strives to build leaders by teaching them to manage issues and giving them the skills they need to compete and lead, Hass said. The training focuses on the mastery of self, relationships and 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.

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. While there, the group observed tobacco farming, sugar cane for ethanol production and large farming operations, added Caldwell.

The California trip provided many lessons relevant to North Carolina. Grants from Golden LEAF and N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission support this program and helped cover the cost of the California trip.

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 these focus areas: 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 Ferry Market (above) is a restored historic structure that survived the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire.
Photo by Natalie Hampton
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.

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 Point Reyes National Seashore. The group learned how Marin growers had added value to their operations and had come to grips with urban growth - both issues that North Carolina growers are facing already.

The group explores the Hog Island Oyster Co. in Marin County, where the visitors learned how oysters are produced and harvested - and how rural Marin growers deal with urban growth.
Photo by Natalie Hampton
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 United States, 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 to 70 percent of the oranges were believed lost.

(Top photo) In central California's Fresno and Tulare counties, the nation's first and second largest agricultural counties, the group witnessed the devastating effects of a January freeze. (Bottom) North Carolinians visit a Fresno County artichoke field.
Photos by Natalie Hampton
Perhaps the biggest concern for Tulare and Fresno growers was that 6,000 to 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.

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.

"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."

Keith Waller, a Wayne County grower who farms with his family, said 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.

Sue Leggett of Nash County, who farms with her husband, said, "This program has introduced me to methods and ideas for improving the interface between the agricultural industry and the general public."

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," he said, "but I know I'm stepping more boldly now."