By Ann Donahue
Years ago, Carol Chandler found herself at a turning point.
She was a “farm wife”—in her own words—a mother who put her career as a teacher on hold to dedicate her time to her family. But as she lived day in and day out with her husband, Bill, and her sons, Tom and John, on Chandler Farms, their fourth-generation operation in Selma, California, she had an important realization.
Chandler recognized that she had a unique set of skills and a compelling voice thanks to being an educator, a woman, a mother and a farmer. “Through the years, I’ve found that in Sacramento and Washington D.C., when women who are involved in agriculture speak up, they listen,” Chandler said. “The women involved in our business, we’re moms and shoppers and food safety advocates and healthy eating advocates and advocates for our farm labor.”
It was that key understanding that formed the basis of her career as one of the most effective agricultural ambassadors the industry has ever seen.
Western Growers will honor Chandler with the Award of Honor during the 2021 Annual Meeting in recognition of her trailblazing work as an advocate, educator and philanthropist. “Underneath Carol’s warm and gracious demeanor lies a fierce and committed advocate for agriculture’s rightful place in our society,” said Western Growers President and CEO Dave Puglia. “There are few in our industry who have given so much time and energy in service to the greater good, and even fewer who have mustered the strength to stick with the fight even as others withdraw from disappointment. Advocacy is not for the faint of heart, which is one of many reasons Carol is so deserving of our highest honor.”
For her part, Chandler said she’s not entirely comfortable with the limelight, but was “overwhelmed to be chosen for the Award of Honor,” Chandler said. “It’s meant so much to me to be on the Board of Western Growers through the years.”
“The Central Valley has much to be proud of and Carol Chandler is at the top of that list,” said President & CEO of Woolf Farming and Processing Stuart Woolf, who will be emceeing the Award of Honor presentation to Chandler at the 2021 Annual Meeting. “She’s a wonderful person, leader and great friend to many. Carol’s sharp mind, strong core values and eternal optimism make her a perfect role model. I am very proud to call her my friend.”
Chandler’s initial impetus to get into agricultural advocacy came from how the issues she saw living on her family’s farm differed from the way those concerns were perceived outside the industry. Chandler is a partner of the operation founded by W.F. Chandler in the 1880s and grows grapes, peaches, plums, nectarines and almonds. “As I became more involved in our farm, I saw that labor was a huge issue,” she said. “The UFW was being very forceful. And we all felt that there was another side to the story—and who better to tell it than those of us who lived and worked on the farm?”
The dedication to telling the true story of what was happening on the ground in agriculture lead to Chandler’s involvement in advocacy at the state, local and national levels. Besides serving on the board of Western Growers—including her current tenure as Treasurer—she is a member of the Central Valley Community Foundation, and previously served on the U.S. Department of Agriculture Advisory Committee on Emerging Markets, the California Grape & Tree Fruit League and the Fresno County Fair Board.
How does she, frankly, find the time to do all this and help run a family farm? For Chandler, the two dedications are interchangeable—and she even admitted she has time for an occasional round of golf. “Our business is a partnership,” she said. “I think that the main thing is keeping everybody in the family involved, and communicating the issues with everybody. It’s easy for us because we all live close by. I think that it makes it more difficult when family members are not close by and maybe just have a financial interest. What’s really important is keeping everybody up to date on what’s happening financially, culturally and with everything to do with farming. I also think that getting everybody involved in advocacy is good as well.”
A throughline in her years of service remains education: she was chair of the President’s Water Task Force for California State University at Fresno, serves on the University of California President’s Advisory Commission on Agriculture and Natural Resources, and held positions with the University of California Board of Regents, the California State University Board of Trustees and the Fresno State Board of Governors. “Being an educator, I don’t think that you ever stop learning and you never reach the point when you just sit back and say, ‘I’m done.’ Because there’s so much more out there,” she said.
But education isn’t the only key for those looking to get involved in the agriculture industry, she said. It also requires a dedication to first-person experience. Knowing the theoretical aspects of ag is all well and good, according to Chandler, but it is critical to get out there and get your hands dirty. “I think if I didn’t live here and see what was happening day-to-day, it would be a little more difficult to see what goes on and be part of it—despite the dust from the almond harvest,” she joked.
Of course, she wants to see more women get involved in the industry. Thanks to her participation in WG Women, American Agri-Women and as past State President for California Women for Agriculture, Chandler believes a hands-on, collective approach is the best way for women to raise pertinent issues.
“When we started California Women for Agriculture, a lot of us gathered because we all thought that there needed to be a voice for agriculture that was not just coming from the farmers, but also from the women involved in farming,” she said. “I just always point to [a time when] Senator Feinstein looked around the room and saw one woman. Me! She said: ‘Where are all the women?’ I really am so pleased that we are working to remedy that situation.”
And so, thanks to this lifelong dedication, the Award of Honor will sit on Chandler’s mantlepiece alongside awards for being named Agriculturists of the Year with her husband by the California State Fair Board of Directors in 2020 and Woman of the Year by the California State Legislature twice, once in 1992 and again in 2002. In 2004, the Fresno Chamber of Commerce named her Agriculturist of the Year.
When she looks back on her contributions to the agricultural community, what is she most proud of? When prodded to brag, she demurred. Because for Chandler, the biggest award was already won before the day she realized her authentic voice could help change an industry.
“I think that you feel appreciative and honored when receiving awards,” she said, “but I think that having a family and being family farmers are the best things that could ever happen in my life.”
Chandler’s achievements and service will be recognized at the Award of Honor Dinner Gala at the Western Growers 2021 Annual Meeting at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar in San Diego. The 2021 Annual Meeting will be held from Nov. 7 – 10, 2021; to register to attend or to take advantage of sponsorship opportunities, please go to the 2021 Annual Meeting website www.wgannualmeeting.com.