Road to the Summit: Be like the buffalo, San Joaquin Valley economy

150 150 Niki Woodard

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin speaking at the San Joaquin Valley Regional Economic Forum (Photo Credit: Andrew Blankenship)

“Make no mistake, this is the heartland of California,” said Sunne Wright-McPeak, president and CEO of the California Emerging Technology Fund, in her closing remarks at the second annual regional economic forum for the San Joaquin Valley.

Stewarding the rich assets of the San Joaquin Valley was the theme of this year’s forum, which took place in Fresno last week.

The region, which stretches through the great Central Valley from San Joaquin County in the north to Kern County in the south, is home to the nation’s most productive agricultural sector, the highest peaks of the Sierra Nevada, and immense ecological diversity.

In an effort to better steward those resources for the region’s advantage, the Valley will need to adapt a sustainable economic model guided by productive partnerships.

Industry Clusters

Hosted by the Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, the forum highlighted the work being done though partnerships to give a boost to the region’s industry clusters.

These industry clusters were analyzed and tapped as the Valley’s greatest opportunities for growth and prosperity. The region’s big sectors include: the agriculture value chain, energy, health and wellness, logistics, manufacturing, water technology, and public sector infrastructure.

According to Mike Dozier, executive director for the Office of Community & Economic Development at Cal State University of Fresno, each of these clusters demonstrates both growth and “leakage,” a term used to describe value that is added to regional goods externally, or in other words, missed economic potential.

Capturing the losses from these leakages is where the Valley stands to gain traction and turn its economy around.

“If you don’t go up the value chain, you don’t create upward mobility for higher wages,” said Bill Fulton, keynote speaker and Vice President of Smart Growth America.

Fulton cited the value chain of almonds as an example of such missed opportunity. Almonds are harvested in Fresno then shipped across the world for a variety of value-added processes and eventually shipped back to Fresno where people purchase those high-value products off a grocery shelf. Fulton argued that the region must “retain the value-added processing of food in order to realize regional prosperity.”

The Valley has made significant strides in its goal to improve regional economic performance, sustainability, and opportunity for Valley residents, businesses and communities. More detailed information can be found in the Partnership’s 2013 Regional Progress Report.


How will the Valley go about closing the gaps to establish a robust blue collar economy? In one word, the answer is stewardship.

Stewardship, as defined by the forum’s organizers, is “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to us. Stewardship requires our collective attention to the economic, environmental, and social dimensions of the region.”

Forum speaker, Doug Noll—principal of Noll Associates—described the model of Steward Leadership as the means of achieving meaningful change.

To achieve that change in the three areas of economic development, infrastructure development, and human development, Noll said there needs to be a fourth circle that encompasses the other three. That fourth sphere is dependent upon coordinated leadership, engaged citizens and institutions, and an effective political sector.

Underscoring this model is the need for trust and perseverance. According to Noll, trust must be built through coalitions that embrace the following virtues: high integrity, a lack of power, strategic thinking, and conflict management.

He is helping to apply the model to some complex issues—homelessness, unemployment, mental health, kindergarten readiness, food commons—that are too daunting to resolve through traditional methods.

As for the requirement of perseverance, Noll compared it to the Native American reverence for the buffalo. Whereas cattle would run from the storm and eventually perish, the buffalo would turn their heads into the storm. We survive the storm by facing it. “That is the motto of Stewardship Leadership,” he said.

Although Dozier kicked off the San Joaquin Valley’s Economic Forum with the quip, “Today’s presentation is brought to you by the word ‘optimism,” there is no doubt that the Valley’s path toward progress is marked by stormy skies.

But with the partners guided by a commitment to collaboration and innovation, using the tools of stewardship leadership, and focusing on critical industry clusters of growth, indeed the outlook is optimistic.


Niki Woodard

All stories by: Niki Woodard