In 2009, the Almond Board of California (ABC) created the Almond Leadership Program to encourage individuals with diverse backgrounds to become leaders in the almond community. Since then, participants involved in all aspects of the almond industry have completed the program. How successful has it been? American Fruit Grower sat down with one of the current participants, Mallvinder Kahal, operations manager at Kahal Farms in Madera County, CA, to talk about how he feels the Almond Leadership Program has helped him grow in knowledge and skills.
AFG: Tell us a bit about your background. How did you get into the almond industry?
MK: My family has been growing apples, grapes, and more recently and more dominantly, almonds, in Madera County for about 30 years. I grew up on the farm and spent weekends working the almond orchards. I went to UCLA and loved it, but about halfway through I realized I wanted to come back home after graduation. I majored in environmental science — after all, farming is the first of the environmental sciences.
AFG: What do you consider the most important benefit of the Almond Leadership Program?
MK: The people I have met. They provide perspective, knowledge and experiences. I walk out of every meeting having learned something new. Everybody has a high level of knowledge, and they are all experts in their areas. It really brings in a fresh perspective, and that perspective leads to innovation and a stronger and more cohesive community, which I was looking forward to when I joined the program. We have people in all different stages of their careers and in a wide variety of ages. I’m one of the youngest ones, in my twenties. Having such a wide range of ages and experiences is great, because everyone brings something different to the table.
AFG: It sounds like you learned things about the almond industry you didn’t know despite having grown up immersed in it.
MK: Yes, absolutely. An example of that are the marketing and processing aspects of the industry. I didn’t know much about our almonds once we sent them to the processor. That was huge for me — learning about the market, learning about people trying to sell the almonds and the regulations and guidelines they have to follow. It was eye opening. That part of the industry is much bigger than I imagined it was.
AFG: One of the benefits of the program is working with a mentor who is experienced in the industry. Who is your mentor, and how is he or she helpful to you?
MK: Ryan Cousins is my mentor. He is part of a family with deep roots in farming in Madera. He has shown me a lot about the history of farming in this area. Even though my family has been here for 30 years, there’s so many farmers here. It can be really hard to get to know them all. Just having these new faces to teach me and be available when I have questions is huge. Without a doubt I feel more connected to the community than ever.
AFG: What are some examples of experiences that you have had as part of the Almond Leadership Program?
MK: There are two types of meetings. Sometimes we have a speaker come in and talk to us at the headquarters in Modesto. Or we will go out to a site and learn about what is happening there. For example, we went to a nursery and got to see the grafting process and how they prepped the trees. We also toured a biochemical company where they produce some of the chemicals we use on our trees. We also went to a honey facility where they remove the honey from the combs after pollination time.
AFG: How has the program taught you to be an effective leader, and how do you plan to use these skills in the future?
MK: I keep going back to the word “perspective.” By providing that perspective of the whole industry, the program has enabled me to make more informed and effective decisions. A leader needs to be able to look at things from all angles. They need to be well-rounded in their knowledge and able to work with other people to share ideas. The leadership program has offered me opportunities to learn and to work with my classmates and discuss things.
I’m want to expand the operation in the best way possible — to be more sustainable, to be more efficient, and to be the most effective leader I can be. Those decisions can’t be made unless I have the knowledge beforehand.
I plan on being here for the long term. I want to spend my life somewhere where I can see the stars at night, and this is a great spot. For me, farming isn’t a job. I don’t feel like I am clocking in and clocking out. There’s something about working the land; you are first a steward of the earth. I think that’s a beautiful thing.