Sonoma Index-Tribune

Leadership Academy grads advance careers in farming

By Kevin Hecteman
California Farm Bureau Federation
August 10, 2022

Fifteen strangers walked into a Santa Rosa classroom in February.

“No one spoke to each other,” said Karissa Kruse, executive director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation. “Everyone sat at their table.”

Nearly half a year later, the same 15 people walked into the headquarters of the California Department of Food and Agriculture in Sacramento. They were now friends—as well as graduates of the first class of the foundation’s new Richard and Saralee Kunde Leadership Academy, set up to help farm employees advance their careers and home lives.

On the last class day, students and their employers traveled to Sacramento to meet CDFA Secretary Karen Ross.

“You clearly are the foundation of success for California agriculture,” Ross told the graduates, all of whom got up and spoke about their experiences.

Jose Cervantes, one of the academy’s new alumni, said he enjoyed meeting fellow farm employees. “All of us have agreed that we want to continue sharing with each other,” he said through an interpreter. “All of us have been very good classmates.”

Winegrape grower Steve Sangiacomo saw the academy as a way to raise the skills of the county’s agricultural workforce.

“This leadership academy is one of the best things we’ve ever done in Sonoma County,” he said. “It’s bringing our best asset that we have, which is our employees here in Sonoma County, and developing their skills and creating an opportunity for them to learn.”

Sangiacomo considered several employees before nominating Leonel Campos for the opportunity. “Leonel was at the top of the list, just due to his vibrancy and willingness to learn,” Sangiacomo said. “He had a desire to develop his skills and become a leader.”

Campos said the most important lessons for him concerned financial literacy. “Thanks to this,” he said, “I’ve been telling my children how they can live a better life, how to plan their future, which in the end is going to make us somebody in this life.”

Cervantes, who works at Cornerstone Certified Vineyard in the Russian River Valley, said the most important lesson for him “was more on education, about opportunities for the families, about the different support that our bosses provide for us in the company.”

“It has helped me a lot, because I want to share as much as I can with my workmates and give them a little bit more information about everything I learned,” Cervantes said.

Cervantes’ boss, Jim Pratt, said the students were always “very talented farmers, very gifted leaders,” and the academy made them even better.

“I think their confidence level has increased, knowing that they fit in everywhere as colleagues and leaders at a countywide level, a statewide level, nation level and an international level, because farming is worldwide and they’re a big part of it,” Pratt said.

In addition to financial literacy, academy students took classes on winemaking, communication, conflict resolution and preparing for disasters such as wildfires.

Kruse singled out the winery tour as a significant opportunity for the students to learn firsthand what happens to the grapes they work hard to grow.

“It just really connected what they did in the field to the finished product,” Kruse said. “I think that’s a win, if nothing else, is that connection—knowing what you do matters at the end of the day, ends up in this bottle.”

Kruse said recruiting for the next academy would begin after harvest. She’d like to keep classes to no more than 20 students, and running multiple classes at a time may be necessary to meet demand. Cervantes and Campos both said they’d recommend the academy to their co-workers.

Sangiacomo said Campos spread the word about the academy to his colleagues.

“I don’t know how we’re going to choose,” Sangiacomo said. “May have to pick out of a hat. There’s so many qualified employees that want to do it.

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