By Vicky Boyd

If you ask Kelton Fleming or Katie Veenstra to describe the 2017 Leadership Farm Bureau class from which they just graduated, they’re likely to give you similar answers.

“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime if you want to learn more about the California Farm Bureau and become more of a leader in the organization,” said Veenstra, 27, and a San Joaquin Farm Bureau board member from the Escalon Farm Center. “I think it’s an important program just because it exposes you to what happens at the state level. A lot of us are so focused on the county level, which is good because it is a grassroots organization. But a lot of times we don’t get the larger picture of what CFBF does on a daily level.”

Fleming, who is active in Young Farmers and Ranchers, agreed.

“It’s definitely been an eye-opening experience to the issues of the state and not just in my own county,” said Fleming, 33. “Sometimes you get stuck on county or your own industry issues, and this program takes you out of your comfort zone.”

The two were among nine people who participated in the year-long leadership program sponsored by CFBF. They graduated during the recent CFBF Annual Meeting in Garden Grove.

With more than 250 hours of leadership and development training during seven individual sessions and trips to the state capitol and Washington, D.C., Leadership Farm Bureau is designed to provide the background for those wanting to take on a larger leadership role within the organization. The program is now in its 18th year.

Fleming said he decided to apply after seeing how the leadership program helped others he knew. And he said he has found the benefits go far beyond just learning more about CFBF and agricultural issues.

“During the past year, I’ve gotten complements because people are noticing some subtle differences in me,” Fleming said. He attributed the changes to sessions on personal development and team building.

“Stuff you first think is kind of silly, I’ve been able to use in my own business,” said Fleming, who owns the wholesale Duck Creek Nursery near Lodi. “What are your strengths and weaknesses, and how do you best apply those? It was really interesting. You have to step aside a bit and look at it from afar. I’m using the skills I learned even with my employees.”

Veenstra said she also decided to apply after receiving encouragement from other Leadership Farm Bureau graduates.

“I felt like I had a pretty good working knowledge of Farm Bureau at the county level, having been in YF&R and YF&R chair,” she said. “But I was interested in expanding my view of Farm Bureau beyond just the county.”

The program included tours of Tuolumne County and San Diego and Imperial counties to provide class participants with a better understanding of diverse ag-related issues. In Tuolumne County, for example, they learned about forestry, the challenges created by beetle kill and water issues. In the southern part of the state, they visited San Diego and Imperial county agricultural operations to find out about contrasting crop and water issues.

“You hear people saying that San Diego doesn’t have any ag, and that’s just not true,” Fleming said. “It really brought it home going down there. In the Imperial Valley, their water issues are even more interesting. You have to order your water – there’s no just turning on the faucet.”

Among other issues addressed were the declining water levels in the Salton Sea, which has led to increased water salinity concentrations, blowing dust from the dry lakebed and increased asthma among area residents.

Although some may think the Salton Sea is a regional problem, Fleming said it should be viewed on a much wider scale.

“We’re citizens of the U.S., so it should be all of our issue,” he said. “We all want healthy air to breath.”

One session addressed how to communicate the industry’s message to lawmakers. Then class participants got to put their new-found skills to work with a visit to the state capitol in Sacramento. The program finished with a trip to Washington, D.C., to advocate on behalf of agriculture.

“This was my first introduction to learning about politics and their inner workings, so it was really an eye opener,” Fleming said of the Sacramento trip. “But I was a little more polished when I went to Washington, D.C.”

In the nation’s capital, he met with his local Congressional representative, Jerry McNerny, D-Stockton, as well as a few others. In addition, the group met with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California.

Although the agricultural industry may not always see eye to eye with Feinstein on some policies, Fleming said there also is legislation, such as immigration reform, upon which the two sides can agree.

Having never been to Washington, D.C., before, Veenstra said the entire experience will stick with her forever. “The whole history of Washington, D.C., and the meetings we were able to partake in were definitely something I’d never done before on that level,” she said. 

Although Fleming said juggling his business operations and a young family with the travel demands of the leadership program were a challenge, he said he was determine to make it work.

Should CFBF call on him to visit with lawmakers in the future, Fleming said he wouldn’t hesitate to say “yes.”

“They don’t want to hear from a lobbyist,” he said. “If I’m representing myself and agriculture, that’s going to bring home the message.”