2011 21.2 AgForestry Program Opens Doors at Home and Abroad

Lo Valledor Wholesale Market,
Outside Santiago, Chile.
Half our group is back in the hotel, sick, after a bad batch of ceviche in Valparaíso yesterday; these things happen. Those of us still standing have taken a bus, helmed by Gerardo, our deft and fearless driver, to a sprawling 160 acre produce market on the outskirts of Santiago—a city of seven million people—nearly half the population of the country. We squeeze down the aisles, stepping aside for handtrucks, rickshaws, and Datsuns laden with lettuce and onions; we dodge pickup trucks and box vans as we pass bins of avocados, case upon case of stone fruit, semi trucks full of corn, cabbage, cauliflower, squash, and melons, pallets of garlic and peppers, bales of kelp, barrels of pickles, crates of eggs, mountains of onions, and basil by the bush, laid upside-down, roots and all, looking surprisingly lush under the hot Chilean sun.

Today is a good day.

Nearly ninety percent of the produce consumed in Santiago changes hands at Lo Valledor, passing from farmers and wholesalers to distributors and retailers. Buyers range from well-heeled brokers looking to buy top-tier produce direct from growers, to cart-and-umbrella stand vendors stocking up on avocados, tomatoes, onions, figs, cherries, and strawberries to peddle on busy Santiago street corners. Others come around at the end of the day, looking for deals on fading lettuce, mushy avocados, rubbery cauliflower, and anything else that’s gone past its prime. You may not always get the price you want, but you can always find a buyer at Lo Valledor.

Each year, the AgForestry program sends a class to a different country with which Washington State maintains a strong trade relationship, or with similar crops and production practices. In Chile, Lo Valledor was one mesmerizing stop of many, including visits to a venture capital fund for natural resource businesses, a vocational high school operating a vineyard & winery, a fishing village recovering from the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that shook Chile in 2010, eucalyptus and pine plantations (for pulp and lumber, respectively), and agricultural operations geared for export, where the price paid abroad can be as much as five times what growers would receive selling their crops into domestic markets.

Today has been a good day, and there have been a lot of good and interesting days on the way here too. I came to Chile as a participant in the Washington Agriculture & Forestry Leadership Program—more commonly referred to as AgForestry—a statewide leadership development program designed for those working in and connected to Washington’s farms, forests, and fisheries to better prepare them to address and advocate on the issues facing Washington’s natural resource businesses and rural communities.

Our two week tour of Chile was the last major excursion in an 18-month program structured as a series of three-day seminars, each focusing in on a different aspect of Washington natural resources, politics, and culture—and not necessarily in that order. The program recognizes that its participants are often already experts in their own field, and so designs the curriculum to educate participants on issues well beyond agriculture and forestry—seminars cover everything from public speaking, working with the media, poverty and mental health, crime and corrections, water and irrigation issues, and transportation, to name a few.

Political engagement is a key element as well, including one seminar in Olympia to learn about state government and a week long trip back to D.C. to engage with legislators, policy makers, lobbyists, and interest groups on the national stage.

The idea behind this breadth of coursework and exposure is to train not just leaders, but citizens, and to instill participants with a better understanding of the other factors and interests weighing on legislators’ minds when they are listening to you speak on behalf of your issue or cause.

When our class graduates in May, we will become the 32nd cohort to complete the program. The AgForestry Foundation is privately funded, and much of that funding comes from the businesses who give their employees time and support to pursue the program, and from graduates of the program who pay back the investment made in their own education by playing it forward to the next generation. The skills and insights the program offers are broadly applicable, regardless of your political stance or philosophical outlook. All the program requires is an attentive, open mind, and earnest engagement with your classmates and with presenters. Participants are also responsible for collaborating with other members of their class on a public policy project of mutual interest. And, much like dairies and fisheries, organic growers have gone underrepresented among the program’s graduates in recent years. Recruitment is currently underway for Class 34.

For more information, visit the Agriculture & Forestry Leadership Foundation website at http://www.agforestry.org/

Tags: AgForestry, Chile, Food Policy, Legislatures, Lobbyists, Policy, Seminar, Travel, Washington Agriculture & Forestry Leadership Program, Wholesale Market