The Almond Leadership Program seeks to train future leaders by providing information about all facets of the almond industry, from grafting the trees, growing the crop, marketing, packing, shipping and all of the steps in between. Sponsored by the Almond Board of California, the program provides seminars, field trips, mentoring opportunities and networking events during a one-year program, and graduates say the experience can be life changing.
One of those graduates, Bob Mahoney of Red Bluff, California, completed the Almond Leadership Program in 2013 and calls it a “pivotal point” in his life and career. Raised on a cattle ranch, Mahoney took an early interest in his neighbor’s commercial almond orchard, although his college years took him down a different path. American Western Fruit Grower caught up with Bob to talk about his experience with the Almond Leadership Program and how it helped him when he got back into almonds.
AWFG: You have a B.S. in resort and lodging management and a M.B.A. in marketing – both from the California State University system. What made you change direction and head back into agriculture?
BM: During college I paid my bills along the way by working in the hotel industry at the management level. However, when that job dried up during the Recession, I did some soul searching and realized that my love for the orchard industry, and especially for almonds, was still there in my heart. I decided to follow that path with the goal of having my own orchard one day. Five years ago, I was fortunate enough to be hired as a field research assistant by the Tehama County Cooperative Extension. Right now I am working on some irrigation projects with almonds, walnuts and prunes. It has been a tremendous experience for me. My bosses, Allan Fulton and Rick Buchner, have done an amazing job mentoring me, and I have learned so much.
AWFG: What were you hoping to learn from the Almond Leadership Program?
BM: One of my roadblocks in coming back to almonds was I didn’t have a formal education in a plant-science related field. But from going through business school, I did know the value of acquiring a network and educating myself. My primary goal when I applied was to grow my network in the industry, to learn more about it and to further sharpen my leadership skills with the hope of getting more involved in the industry down the road.
BM: Absolutely! I can confidently say every one of those expectations was exceeded by the time I graduated. I went into the program with very high expectations, because I already knew the reputation of the Almond Board. And being in the program concurrently with working for Extension worked so well. For me, I got what I would consider the ultimate experience – when I look back, I can say it truly was a pivotal point in my life and career.
AWFG: If you had to pick one, what aspect of the Leadership Program did you find most valuable?
BM: It would have to be the mentoring experience; it was just phenomenal. During my application interview, I emphasized that I really wanted to learn more about the production side of the industry, because that’s where my interest has always been. The Almond Board set me up with Ladd Hackler, a retired field representative for one of the major nurseries, and an almond and walnut grower himself. We hit it off immediately. Ladd has been involved for years with the Almond Board and has so much experience and knowledge. What really struck me about him was his incredible amount of passion and enthusiasm for the industry. And he set up a lot of extra ride-alongs and activities with him outside of our normal Leadership Program seminars and field trips.
Ladd introduced me to his son, Aaron, who is a PCA and almond and walnut grower as well, and he made sure to introduce me to his own network. Aaron and I still get together regularly, and he has taken me under his wing as a mentee, as well.
Another great experience along the lines of mentoring was the job-shadowing requirement. Everyone in the program shadows a professional for a day. I shadowed a farm manager/grower I have respected for a long time. He is very progressive and very good at what he does. I was able to spend the day with him, ask him questions and see how he does things. It was another great way to learn from leaders in the industry.
AWFG: What did you learn about the almond industry that surprised you?
BM: I didn’t realize the extent of the work the Almond Board does for the industry. I had attended some of their events before applying to the program, so I was familiar with the organization, but to see what really goes on was inspiring. I didn’t know about the work they do with technical and regulatory affairs, the work in nutrition, food safety and quality or the environmental research. They explore new markets and expand current ones. The Board provides factual information to the media on the almond industry, which is really important right now. The staff and Board members are truly enthusiastic about the commodity and the future of the industry. Seeing that intensified my initial reasons for wanting to be in the Leadership Program and wanting to be involved in the future.
AWFG: How do you plan to use the knowledge and skills you gained from the program in the future?
BM: I already am using them. One of the many things they encourage you to do through the course of the program is to get more involved in leadership in the almond industry. I didn’t want to go through a yearlong program and then just disappear down my own path. I wanted this to be a first step in increasing my involvement with the Almond Board. I served as an honorary leadership member for the Industry Services Committee. They will bring people who have shown interest from the program into committee meetings and let them learn about what they are doing. If it’s a good fit, you will be added as a member.
I’m really excited to be a member of that committee. It’s provided the opportunity to network more and meet even more people from the industry. One of the functions of this committee is to oversee the Leadership Program. It feels good, because I am giving back to an organization that gave me so much during that year. The members of the Almond Board are an absolutely wonderful group of people, and I definitely look forward to increasing my involvement with them in the years to come.
AWFG: What advice would you give someone who is considering applying for the Leadership Program?
BM: The ideal candidate for this program is someone who is driven to get a lot out of it, because you will. The entire board, top to bottom, is very excited about and supportive of this program. You’re almost treated like a rock star. If you go into it with the same enthusiasm and have high expectations of getting a lot out of the program, you won’t be disappointed. They will bend over backwards, whether through the mentor or the staff to have you walk away with what you are seeking. It certainly exceeded my expectations.