Sonoma Index-Tribune

Sonoma County vineyard worker management prep course graduates 1st class

After years of being under the radar, vineyard workers now have people clamoring to take their side.

August 2, 2022, 9:25AM

Leadership Academy class of 2022

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.

Many applicants have mastered hard farming skills, such as tractor operations, etc., but need “soft” supervisory skills to be ready for new challenges.

Recent graduate Garcia said his father was an immigrant who worked in a winery for over 40 years. Garcia was the first high school graduate in the family, and now his 18-year-old daughter is ready to go to Sonoma State University next month.

“Speakers from all walks of life talked about banking, housing, community involvement, management and other topics. I’ve attended other trainings where only a couple of presenters spoke Spanish. During these classes, we each had a wireless headset giving everyone access to translations and the ability to ask questions,” Garcia said.

Growing up, Garcia was in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals group, part of a federal immigration policy that protects young people who entered the U.S. unlawfully as children.

He said he would see jobs in the newspaper but faced obstacles, like being able to get a driver’s license so he could pursue potential opportunities.

“I was a ‘dreamer,’ one of thousands of undocumented students and youth who qualified for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act. This is why the leadership academy is so important to me, and those like me, when it comes to obtaining more education and practical knowledge needed to advance and become a community leader.”

Marissa Ledbetter, co-owner of Vino Farms, said, “This super-valuable program helps build confidence and gives those participating exposure to many aspects of leadership and sources of information they might not get working in the field. Garcia said he enjoyed being part of the first class and plans to utilize skills learned at the academy when working with others.”

Vino Farms Operations Manager Andrew McCornack was enthused about the program.

“Those attending already possess leadership skills, and these sessions focus on the bigger picture of things surrounding the vineyard and wine industry they can bring back to our organization,” McCornack said.

For field supervisor Jose Cervantes, now in his 27th year with Cornerstone Certified Vineyard, the leadership academy was an eye-opener. He is eager to recommend this program to others.

“I learned so much from teachers as well as fellow classmates as they talked about their experiences and points of view. I was glad that the program covered many subjects. I wish we could have more classes about technical areas, such as managing soils and rootstock, led by UC Davis Ag experts,” Cervantes said.

He said acquiring higher education is a part of the Latino culture. “Two of my four children are attending SSU and another is finishing high school.”

“I’m jealous of what Jose was learning,” office manager Susan Ramirez said. “I sat in on one of his classes and wanted to stay and hear more. This experience has tremendous value for today’s leaders and those on the way up.”

She said the academy is a good way for Jose and others to broaden their understanding of the vineyard business and the community at large, while building peer relationships and having a chance to apply what they heard here at Cornerstone.

Each graduate from the first Leadership Academy class received a $1,000 check from American AgCredit. The financial institution said it was an investment in each student’s future.

Duff Bevill, chairman of the foundation board of directors, talked about the why behind the program.

“Our intent is to make this the most prestigious leadership program in all of agriculture, while empowering participants to pursue leadership opportunities at work and in our community,” Bevill said. “This is the next natural step for the foundation, which has long been committed to support our skilled agricultural workforce and their families who sustain farming in Sonoma County.”

The academy is funded in part with a $10,000 grant from the Richard and Saralee Kunde Endowment at the Community Foundation. Additional funding came from vineyard owners and farmers who invest in and donate to the foundation.

Members of the Richard and Saralee Kunde Leadership Academy's class of 2022, a comprehensive program designed to build confidence among vineyard employees in management positions and to inspire those on the way up through a better understanding of the community, industry and social issues that impact life and the workplace in Sonoma County. (Sonoma County Winegrowers photo)

The 15 graduates of the Richard and Saralee Leadership Academy for vineyard employees pose for a formal class photo at the graduation ceremony held at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts June 14. Participants attended a half day training session once a month starting February 10 and ending in July where they heard presentations from industry and community leaders, elected officials and others providing a "big picture" view of Sonoma County and the wine business. (Sonoma County Winegrowers photo)

Graduates throw their hats into the air at the end of the ceremony marking the successful completion of the first year of the Richard and Saralee Kunde Leadership Academy's six month program (February to July). (Sonoma County Winegrowers photo)

Richard and Saralee Leadership Academy graduate Fabian Garcia, an assistant vineyard manager at Vino Farms (with certificate), with Project Manager Valerie Pearce (left), senior business development and education manager; Karissa Kruse, executive director of the of Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation (SCGGF) and president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, and Duff Bevill, chairman of the SCGGF Board of Directors. The June 14, 2022 graduation ceremony was held at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts. Garcia was one of 15 graduates in the first class to complete the program established by the SCGGF and SCWG. (Sonoma County Winegrowers photo)