Leading with Collaboration and Vulnerability: A Q&A with Kristen Camarena of Wonderful Orchards
By Melinda Reints of Wells Fargo (April 12, 2022)
How often have you been asked “how did you get into the ag industry?” For me, it’s a blend of how I was raised, a deep interest in the impacts of farming on feeding the world, and an awareness that the industry will always be growing. I grew up in the great farmlands of South Dakota and spent the days of my youth working side by side with my father, learning how to work the land and take care of livestock. My career took me to the financial services industry where I help ag companies with their financial needs. I also own and help manage a specialty farm with my husband.
Given the scope of ag in my life, I often find myself wondering how other women came into the space, along with how they succeed in their careers. I also like learning about challenges they’ve overcome and how they lead their teams.
When I found out I had the opportunity to pen this article, my first instinct was to highlight a woman who I wanted to know more about, and Wonderful Orchards’ Kristen Camarena came to mind. I asked if she’d be willing to share her story, and she humbly agreed. I hope you find it as inspiring as I did. She started in 4-H as a young woman, continued in the industry as a young adult, and now oversees one of the farming divisions for Wonderful Orchards, which includes 27,000 acres of almonds and pistachios in over three counties and eight water districts in California. She leads with collaboration, vulnerability, and a democratic approach. Inspired by her mentor, Kristen has empowered her team to ‘farm like they own it’. I spoke with Kristen to get more details.
1). How did you come to work in the ag industry?
From a young age, I was fortunate enough to join 4-H. It’s my earliest memories of agriculture, leadership, and understanding the responsibility of this profession. Though my family were not farmers by trade, through my years in 4-H, and time in Jr. Fair Board, and a high school summer job working for an agriculture research center, I grew to love what the ag community stood for. People in our ag community live by our words. We know that our work ultimately provides for and feeds our world. It’s a tight-knit community bonded by our goal to serve our community and one another.
I decided to pursue Viticulture at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo for my undergrad. For several years after college, I worked in the wine industry on the central coast of California. As a part of my undergrad, I focused my electives to obtain credits needed for a Pest Control Advisor (PCA) license. After acquiring my license, I saw the PCA industry was transitioning, which showed a wave of legends retiring and regulatory measures continually increasing. These factors drew me to practice in the field in hopes of learning from predecessors. This kick-started my career with Wonderful, which at the time was called Paramount Farms.
When I started at Paramount, I focused on the foundations of what 4-H had taught me. In its pledge, one is accepting to use her mind, heart, health, and hands to serve the community, country, and world. This stood as the foundation and the first notions I had in understanding leadership as a duty. With duty, comes privilege. It is how we utilize our ability within these terms to be humble, motivate others, and employ intent on a continuum that builds our legacy. I lend much of my success and career trajectory at Wonderful to what I learned at a young age in 4-H.
2). What’s the most unexpected obstacle you faced last year, and how did you overcome it?
The Wonderful Company prides itself on showing up for the people and communities in which we work and live. As ag workers, we take our responsibility as essential workers seriously, and throughout the pandemic we prioritized balancing the health and safety of our employees while remaining connected as a team. As a leader, one of the toughest parts of the last two years was helping my team maintain a high level of morale while balancing the uncertainties of our world. Every day gave us new curve balls, however, having my team know, more than ever, that we needed to be flexible and have empathy for one another, helped keep our sanity through the toughest parts. Going into 2022, morale has become a key focal point for us. We are excited to bring people back together for trainings and socials that continue to invest in the culture we strive to have.
3). What trait do you have that helps you succeed as a leader in the ag industry?
I decided early in my career that loyalty would be the foundation of my leadership – to earn the trust of those around me by action. I believe that in business, as in life, earning the trust of your people is at the foundation of every relationship. I am fortunate to work for an organization that prioritizes this value, which has played a major part in my career in the ag industry. I am never far away from the work, and continue to earn the trust of my team and partners by being ingrained in the work.
4). What would you tell young women looking to join the ag industry?
I think the ag industry is an amazing space that serves me in three major capacities:
Longevity. When I considered agriculture as a career, the first aspect I considered was longevity. Would it be a viable career? In its most basic state, people must eat to live. As with any other industry, the landscape is dynamic and as farmers we need to adjust with the times, but nonetheless being a part of the team that feeds the world is an amazing career with great responsibility.
Social Impact. It astonishes me that to this day we have food scarcity and food deserts. Every day, over 100,000 people in Kern County, California, where I live do not know where their next meal will come from. For this reason, I currently donate my time to a local non-profit Transitional Youth Mobilizing for Change (TYM4C), which organizes youth ages 16-to-24-years old to focus on alleviating food insecurity.
Personal Fulfillment. Population growth will drive continued demand on our food systems. I ask myself how can we continue to sustain and hopefully thrive in ever-changing times? It is these challenges that motivate me to be a continual learner and problem solver, with the hope that I can help have an impact on the potential solutions.
This past year I had the privilege of attending the WIA Summit, which I advise all young women looking to join the industry to attend. It was an incredible conference and opportunity to connect with like-minded women who serve as an amazing support network. The WIA Summit is a great place to see the dynamic career avenues our industry has available and the amazing network already in place to help them in their ag career journey.
5). What do people say is your best quality in business?
It is an honor to lead people and I take that responsibility seriously. I am grateful to work for an organization that puts people at the heart of our purpose. I think my biggest contribution to the business is building a team that feels empowered to be and perform at their best. To do this, I believe in communicating clear expectations and listening intently. I come to the table with clear expectations and general guidelines; however, I give my team the tools and capacity to find their own path to the result. It is critical to have buy-in from the team and understand that when things do not go as planned, you assess and pivot. There is a lot to be learned from the struggle. Rob Yraceburu, president of Wonderful Orchards, has a saying - “farm it like you own it”, which my team takes to heart every day. This is the idea of ownership, and a big part of my job is to ensure that my team feels empowered to own their part of the business.
6). What characteristics do you have now that empower you to be successful?
To me, a leader isn’t to be perfect but rather self-cognizant and understanding – there is no finality in its context. Being accountable and vulnerable can be a very powerful tool for the good in business – it builds trust, vets every aspect of a strategy, and allows people to give 100 percent. If I can approach every day with the mindset of capitalizing on my interactions with others to improve myself and have a positive impact on those around me, I am at my best.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melinda Reints is a lead commercial relationship manager and the sector strategy and diverse segment’s advisor for Wells Fargo’s Agribusiness, Food and Hospitality group, working with clients across the U.S.
She has more than 21 years’ experience in the financial services industry, with the last 18 years dedicated to serving agribusiness and Native American Banking clients. Reints joined Wells Fargo in 2002 and has held several leadership positions over the years.
Reints holds a Bachelor’s degree from Dakota State University in Madison, S.D. She has served on leadership boards across the community, and currently serves on the NE South Dakota United Way and GROW, South Dakota-NESDCAP boards, and is a member of the Ag Chamber Committee in South Dakota. Reints can be reached at Melinda.M.Reints@wellsfargo.com or via LinkedIn.
*Opinions and information included in this article are general and not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual or entity. Contact your banker, attorney, accountant, and/or tax advisor with regard to your individual situation. The author’s opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Wells Fargo Commercial Banking or any other Wells Fargo business.