Academy students from the fields eye leadership futures

Issue Date: February 16, 2022
By Kevin Hecteman

Even after 25 years in farming, Jose Cervantes is not done learning.

The operations supervisor at Cornerstone Certified Vineyards in Sonoma County's Russian River Valley is one of 15 students in the inaugural Richard and Saralee Kunde Leadership Academy.

Hosted by the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation at its headquarters in Santa Rosa, the academy is a training initiative that aims to secure the viability of agriculture in the county and California and impart business-development skills for new generations in agriculture.

"This class is going to help me maybe to be a better person, and how to treat my workmates better," Cervantes said through an interpreter, adding that he believes "if your workmates are doing well—if you treat them well—we're all well. If they are frustrated, then the company won't do well."

Cervantes' boss, Jim Pratt, had nothing but praise for his longtime employee, who started as a sprayer and now manages the vineyard's day-to-day operations. Students in the class are nominated by their employers, and Cervantes was Pratt's choice.

"He's just very, very well talented," Pratt said. "It's not so much that he wants to treat his crew better; he already treats them great. He wants to learn more. I saw a desire in him to have more resources that would be available to him that he could pass to his crew, so the crew could prosper in what they do and understand more what they do, so we all work better in a growing and changing environment."

Cervantes said he had the backing of his family.

"Sometimes this really consumes a lot of time, but my family also understands, and they say, 'No problem, no problem,'" Cervantes said.

The academy's first class focused on Sonoma County agriculture past and present. Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, spoke to the class about the challenges facing agriculture—among them climate change and water availability—and the need to get involved in coming up with ways to confront them.

"We need all the voices at the table to inform our policy, to inform our investments," Ross said, adding that being in the class means "you want to be a leader in your industry and your community, and hopefully every now and then we'll see you in Sacramento."

Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Andrew Smith presented an overview of his office's responsibilities and a history of farming in the county, as he praised the leadership academy.

"Any opportunity to provide leadership experiences for employees of agricultural operations in the county is going to promote sustainability in agriculture," Smith said. "It's going to promote a greater, more comprehensive understanding of the laws and regulations that govern agriculture or that regulate agriculture, not just in the county but in the state."

Future classes will focus on topics such as communication; conflict resolution; financial literacy; disaster preparedness; and learning about wine production. The academy takes its name from the late Richard and Saralee Kunde, longtime Sonoma County farmers and advocates for agriculture.

Karissa Kruse, executive director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation, said the new academy began with a question: "How do we create future leaders in our ag workforce and beyond?" In 2018, she noted, the foundation began recognizing employees of the month and an employee of the year, all nominated by their employers; the academy's first class was recruited from this pool.

Farmers in the county have an extensive network of neighbors and fellow farmers they can call on for help, and she wanted "to create that same network amongst our vineyard employees," Kruse said.

"We said, 'What if we had our workforce that was also as connected, had those resources, could call their friend that they've met at this leadership training, … and have that same sort of friendship and community amongst each other?'" Kruse said.

Kruse noted the class would also hear from a panel that included Sonoma County farmers of a variety of commodities to give a broader picture of Sonoma County, where winegrapes are far and away the top crop, worth $357.5 million in 2020, according to the county crop report.

Among the panelists were Domenic Carinalli, a winegrape grower and dairy farmer; Taylor Serres, whose family grows winegrapes and blueberries; Samantha Dorsey, president of an olive farm in Petaluma; and Joe Pozzi, a livestock producer.

Steve Dutton, a vineyard manager and former president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, nominated his crew supervisor, Guillermo Velasquez, to take part in the academy.

"He wants to learn more about how to grow grapes, how they're used, understand more about the job he does, and essentially use this as an opportunity to elevate himself in the company—to become more valuable and understand more about his work to be a better supervisor," Dutton said, translating Velasquez's comments from Spanish.

Speaking for himself, Dutton said the biggest draw for him was "the opportunity for these guys to understand more about the job they do in the field and the product that they're growing, and where it ends up."

"For all of them, I'd like them to see exactly what Guillermo was just seeing—being able to understand more, elevate themselves, be better supervisors—just understand more about what's happening right here in their community," Dutton said.

Pratt described the academy as "something that's sorely needed."

"We as managers are very dependent on our key people, all of our employees," Pratt said. "The key management people, if we can empower them to do more, learn more, it helps us. It helps the industry. It helps the company. It helps the whole labor force. It helps the community."

Pratt said a wide range of skills is needed in today's world.

"Agriculture is no longer just farming," Pratt said. "There's the regulations. There's the community efforts. There's the production, marketing. I'm less in the field. Jose's in the field. Knowing what to do, how to do, when to do it—it ties everything together. It helps me, helps him. He grows. It's good for everybody."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

Karissa Kruse, executive director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation, addresses students in the foundation’s new leadership class. Photo/Kevin Hecteman