Creating California Ag Leaders

The author of this story, Meredith Rehrman Ritchie ([email protected]), is is a writer/editor for the California Agricultural Leadership Program and a Class 28 alum.


There is ongoing demand for skilled and effective leaders in California agriculture — leaders who will tackle the critical and complex challenges, be positive advocates for the industry, foster collaboration with diverse groups, facilitate change, and ultimately, ensure the long-term viability of California agriculture. Engaged leaders are also needed to step up and address key issues in our communities, state, and nation.

For 43 years, the California Agricultural Leadership Program has helped meet this demand for high-quality leaders. Operated by the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation (CALF), it is one of the premier leadership development experiences in the U.S. and the longest running of its kind.

“Since the beginning, Ag Leadership has been recognized as a tremendous educational and life opportunity,” said CALF President and CEO Bob Gray. “Fellows are not learning more about agriculture; they’re learning how to be smarter, stronger, and broader-thinking leaders who will make a difference in businesses, ag organizations, government, and communities.”

A Brief History

The Ag Leadership Program dates back to the early 1960s, when the Council of California Growers (CCG) created the (then) Agricultural Education Foundation to accomplish charitable and educational work on behalf of California agriculture. In 1967, some Michigan farmers visited California as part of an ag leadership program sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. CCG representatives agreed that a similar program should be started in California.

Over the next few years, the Agricultural Education Foundation (renamed CALF in 2004) worked with CCG, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and Bank of America to move forward on creating such a program. Initial funding came from the J.G. Boswell Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. A curriculum was developed based on the Michigan model.

The foundation partnered with four universities: Cal Poly Pomona, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Fresno State, and the University of California-Davis. Deans of the colleges of agriculture advised on program content and a faculty member at each university was chosen to coordinate the campus seminars. In November 1970, the first class of 30 was inaugurated.

About The Program

The program has maintained a 43-year alliance with the original four universities. Monthly seminars, which provide an integrated and comprehensive curriculum, rotate between the universities. Fellows also participate in a 10-day national travel seminar and a 15-day international travel seminar.

During an intensive 16-month program, fellows study leadership theory, strategic thinking, strategic agility, effective communication, personality traits, theories of motivation, critical thinking skills, complex social and cultural issues, and change management. Coaching and mentoring elements have recently been introduced.

The program costs about $45,000 per participant. Fellows only pay $750 for materials and CALF covers the rest, thanks to generous individual and industry donations.

“The impact of Ag Leadership is far-reaching,” says Gray. “Graduates have served on hundreds of industry and community boards, committees, commissions, and councils.” Among the nearly 1,200 alumni are current and former members of Congress, two former California food and agriculture secretaries, state senators and assembly members, and a former California secretary of state.

Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation and a Class 17 alumnus, strongly believes in the value of the program. “It’s important that we arm new and rising ag leaders with the skill sets they need to advocate for our industry,” he said. “Times change and needs change. What’s great about Ag Leadership is that it’s a fluid program that keeps changing and reevaluating itself to keep up with the changing times so the program continues to be relevant.”

One of Ag Leadership’s biggest supporters is CALF board chair and Class 27 alumna Loren Booth, general manager of Booth Ranches. “The program challenged me and it changed my life,” she said. “Ag Leadership works. It has a tradition of excellence and a rich history of producing leaders who make a difference. For four decades it has deservedly earned its strong reputation and its impact has been felt throughout the industry.”

Applications for Class 44 are available at Growers, ranchers, and individuals working in allied businesses and organizations are encouraged to apply.