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Leadership program seeks to foster growth in agriculture industry

Leadership program seeks to foster growth in agriculture industry

When it comes to agriculture, the industry is no Silicon Valley.

Surveys conducted just a few years ago found that the average American farmer was 58 while the average American computer programmer was 31.

LEAD New York students near Lake Taal in the Philippines.
LEAD New York students near Lake Taal in the Philippines.

The food and agriculture workforce has only gotten older since 30 years ago, when farmers averaged 50 years old. But the LEAD New York program has been trying to chip away at it for all of those years. The Cornell University-based program, now 36 years old, is recruiting its next class of young people to become tomorrow’s leaders in food and agriculture. Workshops are held at various locations across the state; the next class will meet in Rochester in November and Batavia in December.

Applications for the two-year program are available online now, and the deadline for submitting them is March. 1. Tuition for the program, which has a series of three-day workshops around the state in the first year and travels farther afield in the second year, is $5,900. (This year’s class is going to Kenya next month.) Larry Van De Valk, executive director of the organization, notes that many employers pay for some of all of the tuition for their employee, and there is some scholarship money for those who aren’t coming to LEAD New York through a current job.

Graduates speak highly of the program, particularly the network of peers they take with them when they’re finished. One recent graduate is Sam Filler, executive director of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, who has been promoting it in recent newsletters for the foundation.

“I highly recommend the program to anyone who wants to develop their personal leadership skills and also desires to help advance the growth of our agricultural sector,” Filler wrote in the Jan. 9 issue of “The Press Deck” newsletter. “The program connects its participants to the greater agriculture community outside their specific industry, which creates valuable bonds that strengthens New York’s agriculture community.

Van De Valk said just about every state and regional organization concerned with food and agriculture in New York has LEAD New York graduates in its leadership structure. And many alumni help provide seminars for current students.

The program’s mission is “to inspire and develop leaders for the food and agriculture industries,” said Van De Valk. The “develop” part of the mission is about specific skills participants gain after two years of classes, workshops, tours and travel with LEAD, he said. The “inspire” part is helping students learn to say “yes’ to leadership opportunities.

“We emphasize our program is really about developing servant leaders that are going to go out to develop (the industry.) This is not an MBA program that is trying to go out and make your business more profitable,” Van De Valk said. LEAD graduates are encouraged to not only serve on trade-related boards, he said, but on their communities’ school boards, town boards, fire departments and others.

“Our program is really about developing servant leaders,” Van De Valk said.

Anthony Colangelo enrolled in the current program which ends in April, thinking he would be spending quite a bit of time listening to lectures in hotel conference rooms.

“It wasn’t like that at all. Especially early on, it was hugely focused on …psychological business theory and how to build teams,” Colangelo said. He started out working for restaurants and bars in New York City and then went onto a career in finance on Wall Street before moving to the Rochester area.

LEAD New York’s current class at Foodlink's food warehouse in Rochester.
LEAD New York’s current class at Foodlink’s food warehouse in Rochester.

“When I found opportunities in agriculture, I had no idea what agriculture was all about. I was blown away by how much of a need there was for young people to get involved in agriculture,” Colangelo said.

Colangelo got a job working with Dehm Associates, a management consulting firm in Geneseo that helps dairy farms analyze and improve their finances. The firm’s founder, Bruce Dehm, was a graduate of the LEAD program, too, and recommended it to Colangelo.

“What we (at Dehm Associates) really specialize in is providing them with the tools to better communicate with other people, other stakeholders about their business,” Colangelo said. “That’s part of the skill-set that’s being taught in programs like LEAD New York.” Learning to listen to other perspectives was another skill-set he appreciated.

Van De Valk said the network of peers students gain through the two years is one of the program’s biggest assets. In fact, he believes networking is what helped a group of early LEAD New York graduates step up to form a produce harvest cooperative to take the place of one that folded when Birds Eye sold off its vegetable processing plants in the area about a decade ago.

Thomas Facer, president of Farm Fresh First, said four of the six Farm Fresh First founders and nine of its current board members are graduates of LEAD New York.

Like many students, Facer was working in the industry – for a processing company – when he was enrolled at age 28 in LEAD’s first class more than 30 years ago. “The biggest benefit for me personally was the opportunity to know the 30 members of the group much better,” Facer said, in social gatherings and on field trips. “It turns out a bunch of us went into business together.”

His company, headquartered in Oakfield, Genesee County, manages harvest and delivery of vegetables to the old Birds Eye processing plants in Western New York that are now owned by Bonduelle as well as for other processors. But now Farm Fresh First also procures cherries from central New York, apples from North Carolina, New York, Michigan and Washington state, and popcorn from Illinois and Nebraska.

Because the LEAD program is so time-consuming and involves a considerable amount of travel, applications must be accompanied by a letter of recommendation from both the applicant’s employer and from his or her family. Applicants come from all over the state.

Organizations and businesses such as the New York State Agricultural Society, which helped found the program, and Farm Credit East, an agricultural lender, have regularly sent employees for the training just about every year, Van De Walk, said.

“We think that’s one of the strengths of our program. We are able to pull together a diverse group of people who can teach each other. They learn from each other. Typically a third are farmers, one-third are from for-profit ag businesses, and a third are from government (and) non-profits.”  But some perspectives are still missing, he said. “We would like to see more from urban food perspectives.”

“There’s a real Renaissance right now in terms of downtown scenes and food businesses,” Van De Valk said. “There’s businesses in Rochester that haven’t sent participants much, whether packaging or food distribution businesses.”

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