Sonoma County vineyard worker management prep course graduates 1st class
Twelve years ago, Fabian Garcia began to work in the fields, the last four with Vino Farms in Healdsburg where he is now an assistant vineyard manager.
Ask him about his future and he says, “The sky’s the limit.”
Why he said this has a lot to do with program he and 14 other farm workers recently completed.
The Richard and Saralee Kunde Leadership Academy launched by the nonprofit Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation and the Sonoma County Winegrape Growers on Jan. 11. Classes on topics such as effective communications, conflict resolution techniques, financial literacy and wine production, began Feb. 10 and held each month. Graduation day was June 14.
“We have always enjoyed a strong relationship with our vineyard employees, and we wanted to provide them with the skill set to help them become leaders in our community and in our industry,” Karissa Kruse, executive director of Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation and president of Sonoma County Wine Growers, said of the program’s first class.
Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture and keynote at the groups’ graduation, added, “For farming and ranching to remain viable in California, we must create these types of inclusive opportunities for more people to learn, connect and lead the industry in the years ahead.”
Kruse said the academy concept evolved over the past two years and was patterned on the Leadership Santa Rosa model — the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber’s leadership development program designed to identify, develop, and equip effective community leaders by giving them an in-depth overview of business and community issues along with exposure to community involvement.
The first Leadership Academy class included a group of men with job experience ranging from four to 37 years (average of 18 years). Eighty percent of the attendees spoke Spanish and were supplied with wireless headsets so they could hear translations of each presentation.
But where were the women among the first graduates?
“Our inaugural class represents the historic and current vineyard workforce, as more women enter the ag community, we look forward to welcoming them into future classes,” Kruse said. “Through the foundation we have other programs launching that will specifically support next-gen women in farming, which we are excited to unveil after harvest.”
Kruse said future class size will average 20 students per year to ensure a good experience for attendees, a chance to ask questions and build a professional network.
Some classes were devoted to government and politics as well as community resources, HR, compliance regulations, safety and disaster preparedness.
Guest speakers addressed the need for effective communications, conflict resolution techniques, and financial literacy.
Class members also learned details of wine and wine production to link what they do in the vineyard to the final product. They visited Sonoma-Cutrer Winery in Windsor to witness wine production in action.
According to Project Manager Valerie Pearce, senior business development and education manager for the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, “Our focus is on advancing skills needed by vineyard employees to prepare them for leadership roles with current employers or to enhance leadership capabilities they already have in ways that go beyond learning farming techniques.”
Last fall, Judy James was hired as a consultant to assist in the creation of the academy.
For 10 years James was an adjunct faculty member at Santa Rosa Junior College where she created an Ag Leadership Program with a focus on economics, government relations and public policies. As a former executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, while there she developed the Government Executive Institute, bringing in guest speakers to address farm-related issues.
Judy and husband Jim farm pinot noir grapes in the Sonoma Coast appellation and have their own winery, James Family Cellars.
“Those attending also had an opportunity to meet county supervisors and came away believing they can have access to their local elected officials. I hope this program continues to develop and becomes a model for other counties and industries to consider,” James said.
Kruse said, “James ran with it and offered recommendations and guidance vital to the formation of the initial program and helped to develop the curriculum outline.”
This year’s academy participants were nominated by their employers (grape growers and vineyard management companies, etc.). In several instances, candidates came from among those previously named “employee of the month” or “the year” by their employers and included others who demonstrate potential for taking on additional responsibilities, Kruse said.