Farm bureaus in Napa, Sonoma counties aim for bigger political voice with picks for top posts

Promotion to CEO of the man who fronted Napa County Farm Bureau's successful defeat of a June ballot initiative some viewed as a referendum on wine industry growth is part of its shift into more policy and political activism, particularly as three county supervisors face reelection in March 2020.

'Ryan really sort of established himself as the face of farm bureau. A lot of people were going to him for information, businesses and the media,' said Peter Nissen, the farm bureau's treasurer and a past president of the 700-member organization on the elevation of Ryan Klobas. 'He was the most quoted individual in the 'No on C' side.'

Measure C would have established new restrictions on vineyard development. Cast by proponents as protecting oak trees and the watershed, it was painted as a poorly written initiative and a threat to the county's vast wine industry by opponents.

'Now I have much more latitude to create opportunities for the organization structurally,' Klobas said of the new post, announced in August. 'A political and public policy focus will make us stronger in the election.'

A big part of the new focus, said Eric Pooler, the organization's vice president, is now on lawmakers.

'We will continue to guard farmers against the threat of flawed legislation compromising the future of our industry,' he said.


Though that March 2020 election might seem far away, Klobas said, the farm bureau's fiscal year ends October, which means its strategy needs to be worked out sooner, rather than later – next October will be too late. That's one of the lessons he and the farm bureau learned from the bruising Measure C campaign.

'That was a tough fight but we were successful with it,' said Klobas. 'We wanted to build off that success.'

Supervisors Ryan Gregory, Alfredo Pedroza and Belia Ramos face the voters in 2020. Klobas maintains that the Board of Supervisors is and always has been the proper place to debate and work out complex environmental and land use issues anyway, rather than the unwieldy and rowdy method of direct democracy.

'We still remain willing to work with the proponents (of Measure C) to address the issues raised during the campaign,' he said. 'We think the best way to do that is at the Board of Supervisors.'

Though the farm bureau does a lot of different things, from farm worker safety education to member networking, now more than ever, its primary focus is on policy and politics,

'When the board of directors decided to reorganize the farm bureau, their focus was on turning the farm bureau into the premier public policy organization in Napa Valley,' he said.

The board saw Klobas, hired as policy director in September 2017, as the man to lead the farm bureau towards that goal.

As soon as he was hired, Klobas threw himself entirely into the fight against Measure C, said Nissen, the farm bureau's treasurer and a past president of the 700-member organization.

'We hired Ryan less than a year ago as our political director,' said Nissen, who's been at the farm bureau since the late 1990s. 'He's been very successful in reestablishing our presence in Napa County, at the county and city and staff levels as well as with other trade associations we work with. He re-energized our position.'

The shift which elevated Klobas to the CEO job is also rumbling through the bureau's executive committee.

'If I had to cite a distinction between our current group and executive committees of the recent past, the strong emphasis that we all place on protecting agriculture is top of mind,' said Pooler, who is also on the committee. 'We are farmers and stewards with a common goal. This hasn't always been the case.'

In the reorganization, the farm bureau's board and executive committee looked at neighboring Sonoma County, where the farm bureau deals with many similar policy issues, and which has also moved this year to strengthen its leadership for more of a political focus.

'Sonoma was a model that was compatible for us,' said Nissen.


Just as in Napa, over the last year Sonoma County Farm Bureau has looked to free up its top leader, Executive Director Tawny Tesconi, to focus more on policy by hiring staff to help her.

Tesconi, named interim executive director in January before getting the permanent title in March, said the Sonoma farm bureau has been 'staffing up' and recently hired an assistant to help her.

'In a lot of ways we are restructuring from the previous organization chart in the last few months,' said Tesconi. 'We hired an executive assistant to work with me, letting me focus more on policy.'

Tesconi said the changes at her organization and at Napa's are part of a trend away from the older idea of a farm bureau boss as a 'manager.'

'More often than not in the farm bureau world the position has been called a manager,' she said. 'Typically a county manager gets bogged down with day-to-day stuff.'

And as Napa's farm bureau has looked towards Sonoma for ideas, Sonoma has also watched Klobas transform his organization.

'I have not met him in person, but I've admired his work very much,' said Tesconi of Klobas. 'I've always commended him on his great job. I'm also focused on policy issues.'


Although Measure C casts a mighty shadow over the farm bureau, Klobas sees other areas the organization must modernize to keep up in the current world, with membership and outreach to members the most important.

New membership rules will allow what Nissen called 'ancillary agricultural businesses' to join the bureau and become voting members. This includes businesses like fertilizer sellers or tractor dealers, or companies that make dedicated agricultural industry software, which were previously excluded.

'We're doing a full court press on membership,' he said. 'Making the public aware of the benefits of farm bureau membership. For under $100 anyone can become a member.'

Nissen, the treasurer, said Napa County Farm Bureau learned a lot about needed changes to its membership model from the overarching California Farm Bureau Federation, which, like Sonoma's farm bureau, had lessons for Napa.

'At the state level they expanded the definition of a member and there was a little bit of reluctance (to do the same) on our last board,' Nissen said.

Napa County Farm Bureau has more than 700 members, Nissen said, with about 500 of them full voting members. Different levels of membership cost more.

Although the overall direction is clear, not all the changes at the farm bureau, including new staffing, have yet been figured out, Klobas said, since the dust hasn't settled. He is getting staff, like Tesconi has, to help him focus on policy.

'The reorganization occurred about a week ago,' he said. 'We're still looking at specific directions we want to take.'

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