By Stephanie Metzinger, Communications Manager
The United States is currently undergoing an extreme societal shift, as Baby Boomers (U.S. adults born 1946 to 1964) continue to retire and Millennials (born 1981 to 1996) have now become the largest generation in the labor force. According to the Pew Research Center, in the third quarter of 2020, about 28.6 million Baby Boomers reported that they were out of the labor force due to retirement. This is 3.2 million more Boomers than the 25.4 million who were retired in the same quarter of 2019.
As the pace of retirement for Baby Boomers continues to accelerate, companies need a strong workforce plan for replacing exiting workers. Western Growers (WG) is dedicated to helping member farmers cultivate the next generation of agricultural leaders to ensure a smooth transition.
Ten years ago, WG rolled out the first program in a string of strategic initiatives geared toward arming the future workforce with the skills and knowledge needed to become influential leaders in the specialty crop industry. The Future Volunteer Leaders Program launched with a mission to identify and prepare the next generation of WG members for positions of leadership within the Western fresh produce industry. Over the course of two years, participants of the program engage in a series of hands-on activities that allow them to become well versed in federal, state and local issues affecting agriculture as well as burgeoning industry opportunities such as agtech development.
The Future Volunteer Leaders Program inaugurated its sixth class in February 2020, and for the first time in program history, it welcomed a young leader from Colorado. Since the program’s inception, seven alumni have graduated into a seat on the WG Board of Directors: Brandon Grimm (Grimmway Farms); Eric Reiter (Reiter Affiliated Companies); Kelly Strickland (Five Crowns Marketing); J.P. LaBrucherie (LaBrucherie Produce); Neill Callis (Turlock Fruit Company); Stephen Martori (Martori Farms); and Alex Muller (Pasquinelli Produce Company).
“When I started in the Future Volunteer Leaders Program, I was the food safety manager, and in the few years since graduating, I have become the president at Pasquinelli Produce,” said Muller, who also serves on WG’s current 2021-2022 board. “During my time in the program, I got to sit at the table and hear from and communicate with industry leaders. Some of the discussions I recall having span topics from E. coli outbreak response, the ever-changing world of H-2A, the perceptions of GMOs, to balancing family life in a demanding industry.”
Muller notes how one of the most impactful activities from the program was his interactions with Karen Timmins (WG senior vice president, Human Resources) while learning how to elevate his company and workforce through the principles of the Arbinger Institute.
“I believe that if you build a strong and healthy work environment, employees will see Pasquinelli as an extension of their own personal success. At the end of the day, we are a family business and we never want to lose sight of that,” said Muller.
To further develop the agricultural workforce, Muller has also introduced students to the various careers offered at Pasquinelli through the WG’s rising career pathways program, Careers in Ag (CIA).
To fill the agricultural workforce gap, WG launched the CIA program in 2016 to encourage college students to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers within the agricultural industry. As part of the program, college students embark on three-day tours of agricultural and technology operations in Monterey County, the Central Valley, and the Coachella and Imperial valleys and Yuma, Arizona. Throughout the tour, they learn about the vast array of STEM jobs available in the industry, meet ag professionals who provide career insight and guidance, and connect with Western Growers members to possibly pursue an internship or job within their operation.
More than 250 students from UC Davis, Cal Poly Pomona, Cal State L.A., Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Fresno State and numerous California community colleges have participated in the program to date, with several having been placed in internships and jobs as a direct result of the program.
“The Careers in Ag Program reinforced my desire to work in the ag industry,” said Anahi Huerta. Huerta, who participated in the program’s December 2018 tour while attending UC Davis as a managerial economics major, was offered a food safety coordinator position at Prime Time International shortly after graduation.
She has been part of the Prime Time team for nearly a year now, coordinating compliance paperwork and customer requests. Before she participated in the Careers in Ag Program, Huerta had not considered a career in food safety.
“I remember visiting a lettuce field being harvested, being handed a hairnet, and the food safety lady began speaking on the importance of food safety practices,” said Huerta. “It was my first experience with the subject and the complexity of it interested me. To this day, every time I see a lettuce field, I reminisce on that moment and the knowledge I learned.”
To help provide other young women such as Huerta with the tools needed to pursue leadership positions within agriculture, WG recently rolled out the WG Women program. WG Women prepares females for positions of leadership by providing them access to a series of ongoing activities—both virtual and regionally-based—aimed at supporting professional growth and paving the way for influential leadership opportunities within the fresh produce industry.
WG Women, which launched in February 2020, was created for women farmers by women farmers. To ensure that the program was tailor-made for women in production agriculture, WG staff teamed with a steering committee comprised of 10 female farmers from across the industry to help build the program.
Briana Giampaoli, a fourth-generation farmer at Live Oak Farms, who was a member of this influential steering committee, said, “When I was approached by Western Growers with this opportunity, I knew that I could not only aid in creating a program with a mission to help women throughout the organization, but it would also be a great opportunity for me to learn from other women in the industry.”
Giampaoli was among the first to officially apply for the program. As a staunch advocate for women in agriculture, she noticed the program’s potential from the beginning and believed it to be a chance to create a community for women in the agricultural industry to collaborate, learn and share their experiences.
“Programs like WG Women are giving individuals the tools to move the industry forward in a positive way,” said Giampaoli. “I have always believed you can’t tell someone to do something and always expect it to happen. You must give the person the tools that are needed for the job and then there is no excuse for it not to be accomplished. WG Women is giving women in ag the tools to become leaders within the industry.”
Though WG Women had to pivot to a virtual format due to COVID-19, participants of the program are still immersed in impactful activities including: mentorship, networking, leadership training, political advocacy, community outreach, and consumer advocacy such as traditional and social media training.
“The trainings have not only helped identify my strengths, but also how to develop the skills to best play into those strengths. They were all very informative and relatable for me as a woman in ag and a leader in the industry,” Giampaoli stated.
The WG Women program, along with the Future Volunteer Leaders and Careers in Ag programs, is not only playing a critical role in filling the looming skills gap but is producing young farmers who are making a difference. By providing the next generation with the skills needed to both innovate and fight for the industry, these strategic initiatives are ensuring the sustainability and survival of agriculture.