Brent Burchett

EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY FARM BUREAU

FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

Welcome to the AgSnacc Podcast where we take a look at careers in agriculture and the journey toward those careers. I’m your host, Erin Gorter, and we hope you enjoy this tasty AgSnacc. 

 

Erin Gorter:  

All right, so we are here with Brent Burchett, the executive director of the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau. Good morning Brent. 

 

Brent Burchett:  

Erin, thank you so much. Glad to be here. 

 

Erin Gorter:  

Yeah! So we always start off with a tell us what you do for a living and what the average day looks like for you. 

 

Brent Burchett:  

So, I am basically advocating on behalf of San Luis Obispo County farmers and ranchers, and that means going to county government meetings. That means going to meet with regulators, people that write laws or first enforce laws that may impact farmers. That could be dealing with a farmer’s market one day, a pesticide regulation the next day, a county rule that may restrict where crops are grown, making sure that our elected officials know what's going on with our farming and ranching community here in San Luis Obispo but also making sure that they appreciate the value that we bring to the economy. You know, we get kind of stuck in our bubble as farmers and ranchers, but we are a part of the economic growth of the community. And I mean, we produce income for people, we provide jobs for people, and most importantly, Erin, we provide food. We can't live without this stuff called food. 

 

Erin Gorter:  

I do love food. So we also like to reflect back on where you came from and I think you have a little bit of a different story than some other people that we've interviewed, so why don't you tell us about your high school experience. What was it like? What were you involved in? 

 

Brent Burchett:  

I have to say Erin, I have an accent, that's okay. You can say it’s a little bit different. Not from around California. Born and raised in Kentucky and moved to California in 2019. My fiance is actually from Carrizo Plains, which is a pretty rural part of San Luis Obispo County. She's a part of a big ranching family and I have really enjoyed agriculture. Coming from Kentucky, when I tell people I was moving to California it was like I was moving to Mars. I mean, it was truly a, people wondered about, you know, do they have water out there? How do they get by? What's going on? But people don't know. And I guess if you're listening to this, your state of California is the envy of the world in agriculture production. It is what people get excited about, the technology, the innovation by your farmers, your ability to produce a huge diversity of crops, so, where I come from in Kentucky, we do not grow lettuce and strawberries and sweet corn year round. Those are seasonal limited crops. But at least here in the central coast of California where we're speaking today, in San Luis Obispo, we have a pretty wide window of opportunity, and that's mostly because California has the awesome power of sunlight. You have more days of sunny weather than many other places in the country. You also have access to workers, people that can help get those crops out of the field. The last thing you have, but it's decreasing, is water. Water is the, you know, central part of agriculture, but the reason California agriculture is so big is that it's got labor, it's got sunshine, historically it's had water, but we can talk more about there. That's a very challenging issue, though. 

 

Erin Gorter:  

So, what was high school like in Kentucky? Were you involved in any sports extracurricular activities?  

 

Brent Burchett:  

Yeah, lot’s of them. Yeah, so, I am, how old am I? I am 35, so it's a while ago, but I loved high school. So I was involved in everything I could squeeze in and my mom and dad would let me do and fool with. I played sports, played football. I wasn't very good at football, but I enjoyed playing it and I also was involved in the speech team. I don't know, do y'all call that like forensics? It's basically like debate and storytelling. I was a state champion storyteller, which meant I got there and had like an old country story about catfish and hunting and went up there and made funny voices. And so I enjoyed that, and I think that is, you know, looking back in high school, clearly I'm not playing professional football, but I did learn a lot about teamwork and physical exercise and things that are important, but really, speech team was what I think was one of my biggest assets. So if you're one of those nerdy drama kids like I was, and you think, how is that going to serve me as a career? I'm not going to be an actor. I'm not going to be on Broadway, but being able to speak and explain an issue to someone, getting in front of a group, there's, Erin, a statistic that more people are afraid of public speaking than anything else. They would rather get bit by snake than, you know, to public speaking kind of a deal. But I find that if you can practice doing that, that is something that I did in high school and I was really nervous. I still get nervous when I give speeches, but that's a good career path. Whether you want to be an attorney, or a doctor or a teacher or a preacher or whatever it is you're going to do, being able to speak well is an essential skill. 

 

Erin Gorter:  

So when you were in high school, what did you expect to be when you grew up? 

 

Brent Burchett:  

I think I was going to be a millionaire and a professional wrestler and maybe a movie star, and now when I talk to students, a lot they say they're going to be a social media influencer. That's what they’re career, and some of them probably will be. Some of them are probably going to make more money when they're in college than I make today as an adult, but I was involved in agriculture. My family farms and ranches in Western Kentucky. I appreciated agriculture, but my skill set was not fixing tractors, you know, planting crops. I didn't have a good sense of biology. My worst classes in high school were chemistry and biology and calculus, and if you want to be a farmer, you better have your skill set on biology and mathematics and engineering. You better know how to weld, you better know how to fix stuff, to run electricity. A farmer is basically, you know, doing 12 different careers. So I think farm kids are some of the most talented and when I look at hiring someone, even if they're not in a, you know, I'm not hiring them to plant a crop or raise a cow, but just having that work ethic and the ability to problem solve. Ag kids fix stuff. They understand stuff. They’re problem solvers. So for me, I really didn't know what I wanted to do, but I wanted to support agriculture because that's what my family did. It's what my grandparents did. So it was important to me to find a way that I could use my skill set. And I think that's kind of what led me to this kind of public service and agriculture and lobbying and working with the government and advocating on behalf of farmers where I'm at today. 

 

Erin Gorter:  

So speaking a little bit further on that, after high school, what kind of shaped your, what were your educational experiences and work experiences after high school till this point? 

 

Brent Burchett:  

So I was fortunate that I had some scholarships and I put in the time to give myself the ability to have a full college experience. I know a lot of people don't have that opportunity. They're having to work and only able to go to school part time, but I was lucky enough that I had some pretty good scholarship. So I was able to concentrate on my academics and meeting people and networking. And so when I went to college, I think my very first job was not until I was like a junior or senior as I was able to fully enjoy clubs and activities and just really appreciated being able to network. And when you're in agriculture, no matter where you go in the country, if you're in agriculture type curriculum, you will find there is a camaraderie, a friendship, a bond amongst the ag kids. And it doesn't matter if they're from the city or the country, but people in a ag program, it's a family. So if you're going to a, I know I was worried about getting lost in college. I was worried about going to a school that was too big for me and I was from a small town and went to a small high school, but it was a good thing in that I had the cool stuff of a big university, you know, all the big sports and the pretty facilities and cool stuff, but having the College of Agriculture, being an agriculture major means you're in the College of Agriculture. It means like most of your teachers are shared by a common set of classmates and you kind of get to know each other better. So it's like having a small school within a big school. So if you're looking at colleges and thinking, well, I want to go to a big school or small school, know that agriculture can kind of help bridge that gap. And I enjoyed that. Other work experiences, I worked in communications, which is writing, speaking, preparing PowerPoint presentations. I worked for an oil company in Kentucky when I was in college, I worked for Student Government Association, I actually ran a political campaign when I was a senior in college, and that means I was in charge of helping the candidate win his election. So I was there, going door to door organizing volunteers. I know a lot of these students, they're involved in canvassing and organizing their communities, but I think that's a good skill set to, even if you don't like politics, even if, you know, elections make you crazy. Just get involved in one to get the experience one time. Doesn't mean you love this candidate that you believe they're the perfect person, but everyone should have to experience democracy firsthand. And what that voting process is, what that getting people to listen to your side is. I think that certainly will, I worked for a city council office, got to deal with constituents, and that just means you know, someone's mad about their neighbor doing something or the garbage didn't get picked up, or someone they can call. And I had the unfortunate pleasure of being the recipient of those calls. But it taught me how to deal with the public and knowing that, you know, whether you're republican or democrat or libertarian, no party, whatever it is, we have to get along with democracy. We all have to work together, bridging those gaps of where I came from and where you're coming from may be different, but we all have to get along in these communities we live in. We all have to prepare for the next generation together. So if you're looking at jobs, I'll say this, I've rambled on here, you're not going to be doing what you think you're going to be doing. Guarantee. You may be a handful of people that I know that said they were going to be a doctor, and they went to school for that and they did exactly that path and today, they're a doctor. But I would say 80, or 90% of students should realize that they haven’t even thought of the cool career they're going to do yet. And there's a lot of exciting things out there that haven't been invented yet. And students listening to this are going to invent these careers. They're going to be the ones that start new things that we haven't even conceived of yet. And really, that's going to be stuff that you enjoy and stuff that you understand. So there's people that may not be good speakers that want to be behind the scenes, coding and writing electronic stuff and digital stuff. There may be other people that that's way above their head, they don't enjoy that. So you're going to do something that matches your natural talents. You want a skill set that can be flexible and move with you across the country. I mean, if you told me, Erin, that I was going to be in San Luis Obispo, California, I would have laughed at you. Kentuckians, we don't leave home much, like we got a good place out there. We don't just pack up and leave. But just know that, don't worry about figuring everything out when you're in high school. I remember that pressure. I remember just being so worried about ‘I want to be a successful person. I want to have my first million dollars by, you know, age 22,’ or whatever it was. Know that life's hard and you need to enjoy it and enjoy your time and experiment with different things and go different places. As you get older, it's harder to be more flexible. But don't worry about it. Enjoy stuff, find your passion, have backups, have multiple, you know, skill sets that you can plug in anywhere and you'll be just fine. 

 

Erin Gorter:  

I think you bring up a couple of really key points right there. I'll go back to the beginning of your statement about public policy. There's probably no better way to learn how the system works than to work in the system, that kind of learned by doing piece. So I think that's really important that you bring that up because anyone can get involved in that. And then second, I know you brought up social media influencers and all I can think of is who, 20 years ago, who would have thought like we could have been making like a living being a social media influencer. Now it's a thing. So yeah, there are things that have yet to be devised that could be career opportunities later. What is your favorite part about your day at work? 

 

Brent Burchett:  

My favorite part is actually getting to interact with farmers and ranchers. So if I have a farmer come to my office and it reminds me that what I'm doing matters that, you know, making sure that their way of life can continue because none of us understand other people's careers until we have really studied them or spent some time, you know, shadowing or going. So I get frustrated when people are thinking they have agriculture figured out, that they're an expert, because they grew a tomato this year on their porch, and that organic is only way or organic’s terrible, or here's, you know, they've got it all figured out. But really, they've never had to raise food for a living. And I would challenge anyone listening to this if you think you're an agriculture expert, just try to feed yourself. Just grow your own crops and livestock and there's some people can do that. It's a very difficult process and with weather and cost of inputs and labor and regulations. And when I say regulations, I just mean the rules about farming and ranching that the government imposes on all industries including agriculture. So the favorite part of my day is, you know, I get frustrated when we don't get our way in the legislature when there's bills that get passed or signed by the governor that we don't like or that are bad for farmers. But when I meet the farmers and ranchers I get kind of excited that, you know, agriculture matters. This stuff we're doing, we have food on our table every night because we live in a country that has awesome farmers and ranchers. There's other places in the world that don't have that. So I'm reminded that while I may not be a farmer, my family farms but I don't grow any crops. I've got a black thumb there, and I kill every plant in my house. But I know that I'm helping other people that have that skill set, survive and value our local agriculture. We want farmers here, we don't want to import all of our food from other countries, we want to be self resilient. That means, you know, something happens and there's no way to get food in here or there's a, you know, natural disaster in another part of the world, we have food right here locally. And to do that, we have to support farmers and ranchers and make sure that they can stay in business. 

Erin Gorter:  

So on the flip side, what's the most challenging part about your day at work? 

 

Brent Burchett:  

The disconnect between decision makers and what happens on the farm. So, for example, it may sound good to put a new restriction on pesticides or on water cloth that may say farmers are spraying too much pesticides, or they're not doing a good job managing their water, that they're over watering, or they shouldn't be disking their field. There's a new movie out, I don’t know if you've seen this, Erin, called kiss the ground, and it's narrated by one of my faves Woody Harrelson. But I will actually lead a panel discussion about, with real farmers, about what this movie meant to them. And I was thinking they were going to be kind of a little bit out there and say yeah, this is the perfect movie. We should all do this. It's got all the answers. But the farmers on the panel said no, this movie definitely oversimplifies things. It's kind of not accurate in terms of what farmers really have to do to survive. And so, I get so frustrated when there are self appointed experts that want to tell people how to farm and ranch that have never farmed a day in their life. And I know that's the role of regulators so regulators have to,  difficult job of keeping us safe. They make sure that there's, you know, not bad stuff on our food that farmers are taking good care of their animals. They're taking good care of the people in their operation. They're being good employers. And those are important essential things. But I'm afraid that we have too much focus on what we can do to make farmers change instead of listening to farmers as to how can we all achieve our shared goals of protecting the environment, protecting the water. So my challenge every day is to make sure that I'm educating them and getting them to come to a farm to see it in person to listen to a farmer first hand instead of trying to pass down judgment or pass down new regulations on them. 

 

Erin Gorter:  

We're in the business of producing, managing and marketing the distribution of food. What is your favorite agricultural commodity? 

 

Brent Burchett:  

You guys have so many awesome crops or stuff that I've never even seen before. I feel so stupid when I go to the farmers market and I go what does this? looking like I'm stupid. What is that stuff, they call it Yakama? J, I.  

 

Erin Gorter:  

Jicama. Jicama. 

 

Brent Burchett:  

Alright. That was pretty neat. I've never seen Jicama before. I've had more different varieties of squash here than I ever did before. There was one called like mashed potato squash that I just had a couple of weeks ago. It was delicious. Avocado production. That's something I've never get to see in Kentucky that I’m, citrus industry fascinates me. I would say my favorite, probably, commodity is beef. I'm a beef eater. My family, my fiance's family is ranchers. We have a diverse agriculture system here on the coast where we've got cattle grazing on large amounts of land that can really only be used for grazing. You can't grow crops in the desert necessarily, but you can graze and have a little bit of dryland farming. So I love the diversity. In fact, in one county, we have, oh gosh, I'm gonna say over 40 or 50 different commodities that we produce here in San Luis Obispo, which is truly amazing. 

 

Erin Gorter:  

Can you think of any internship or volunteer opportunities for high school students kind of like in your field where they might be able to garner some experience that would make them marketable in your field later on? 

 

Brent Burchett:  

There are no bad internships. The only bad internship is not doing one. I've had internships that I loved, ones that I didn't love that much. And I learned that I did not want to be in that industry. So do different things. Go into, you know, Farm Credit West, these financial type internships. Go work for Nutrient or a big ag company that sells chemicals or inputs or fertilizer. Go work for an organic farm and get that perspective. If you are not necessarily in production agriculture, but you are, you know, want to look for a good internship, I would recommend volunteering on a political campaign, and doesn't mean that you endorse that person, that you love them forever but if there's an opportunity to get involved in campaign do that at least once in your life so you can get that experience, and, I promise you, they're always desperate for volunteers. So if you're willing to work and, you know, knock on doors, make phone calls, you will meet people that will serve you well as you advance in your career. I've never had in a job interview where they said oh, you know, I see you got a B plus on your ag business 305 class in college, but they say, oh, you worked with Billy Bob Thornton down at Jimmy Jo's place, I say, yeah, Billy Bob was great. We, his son, our friends, still, blah, blah, blah. So it's the networking you get. Don't necessarily look to get rich off your internships, but just have this open mind and know that you're gonna have to do a lot of different things to know what you like and what you don't like. So get started early, do internships, even in middle school, go on job job shadowing days, and I get a lot of requests for interns at our farm bureau office. And it's easier for me to do job shadowing. And I can give people kind of the gist of what I do. So even if it's not attached to your school curriculum, you don't need a school's permission to go shadow somebody. You need your mom and daddy's permission to go out there and do an internship in a short term set. You could shadow someone for a week day and just get a sense of their career. You might say, I don’t want to do anything in banking, banking is the worst thing ever. Or you might say yeah, that's kind of cool. The bankers they come in at nine o'clock leave it four o'clock, it's a pretty good job. So have a diversity of opinions and perspectives and do as many internships as you possibly can.  

 

Erin Gorter:  

Yeah, so you may not get rich with money, but you’ll get rich with experience. I don't know if I told you this before, but my very first job in high school was at the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau office. And I did clerical tasks to help everybody. I discovered that I didn't want to work in a job where I had to do a lot of bulk mailing, because that's what I was usually tasked with doing was putting together all these bulk mailings. But I met a whole bunch of people that I still like can have those relationships with today. So I'm rich with experience. And really life is all about establishing relationships and what you do with those relationships later on and the more experiences you have, the more of those connections you can make. So.  

 

Brent Burchett:  

Absolutely. And mailings do stink everywhere you go. So I agree. 

 

Erin Gorter:  

Yeah. 

 

Brent Burchett:  

I’m having to do those now, Erin, and I’m the executive director.  

 

Erin Gorter:  

But don't you like having appreciation? I mean, it gave me a great appreciation for that type of work because I was like, oh, man, can you imagine how to do this all day, every day? 

 

Brent Burchett:  

Yes. And I should say like, you know, I'm lobbying on behalf of farmers and ranchers, but I'm also a nonprofit organization manager. And there are tons of jobs in nonprofit. Good jobs that make your heart feel good about serving your community, not just in agriculture, but you know, all these, they’re not government organizations, they're run by, you know, a group of volunteers, they may have one staff person. So if you're looking like college career paths, know that nonprofit management skills need to be a jack of all trades. You need a little bit of accounting bookkeeping, know how to balance a budget, you need to know how to talk to people, recruit members to solicit donors, and by donors, I mean, people that give you money to keep your organization going. If you can get money from people, you will have no shortage of jobs anywhere you go in this world. If you learn how to be a good communicator and a positive person, and you know, all these, you know, shelters, and food banks and support programs in the community, they're staffed by someone. And so its ability to get volunteers, donors, and do a good job managing and carrying out the organization's mission. That is a truly valuable skill set. And you can take that and do all kinds of different things. 

 

Erin Gorter:  

And I guess, and kind of like hinting on that too and throwing it back to a little bit about what you said earlier about their jobs out there that haven't been invented yet, like kind of thinking about that, what are some skills that you think students will need 20 years from now, or some changes that you think will happen within agriculture and the industry 20 years from now that students can focus on now? 

 

Brent Burchett:  

It's kind of like, I wish I would have been better making, you know, Facebook videos and promotion and coding now. I think the kids today need to do the opposite. I think you need to go back to your, I'm gonna call them hard skills of engineering of electricity, plumbing, building, construction. Those jobs I think we will have lost out on across America and we will have a shortage. I mean, just go look at what jobs we have shortages of now. It's not people that can make Instagram videos. I don't think in the future there's, you need to be thinking about a backup. Maybe your passion is coding. Maybe your passion is photography or videography or public speaking, but you need to be able to do something. And I mean, with your hands and fix something. Can we fix our cars? Can we fix our houses? Can we balance a checkbook? Can we have these basic skill sets? So whatever you want to do, have a backup, and you may end up doing that backup. For me, I was doing graphic design stuff and making campaign signs. But I don't do that necessarily all the time now. But I have done that in different jobs. So just know that you need a diverse skill set, and have your, you know, your, the career that makes your parents happy that's boring and probably hard classes that you're going to take in college, and you'll still find ways to support your passion. But give yourself that backup so that you can support yourself financially. I've never had engineers that were lacking for jobs. I've never seen, you know, people with advanced degrees lacking for jobs. But I know a lot of my friends that were in agriculture education, or ag communications, that that was their passion, but they couldn't find the job they wanted in the area they were. So now they're having to work in a job that they don't necessarily like. So try to get your core things first, those difficult classes you don't like and I'm guilty as anybody in biology, chemistry, physics, math. And you'll be preparing yourself to have the career you want. Because you don't want to wake up when you're 30 years old and realize that you need to reset your career which can be done but it comes at a cost. Your youth, your 20s and early 30s are time to train yourself and get ready for your career. 

 

Erin Gorter:  

Okay, so also going back if you could, this isn't the last question. Last question here, going back to high school, Brent, what is the one piece of advice you would give yourself that you wish you knew back then? 

 

Brent Burchett:  

Have fun, hang in there. Go, do, say yes. Make time for different things. And I feel like I did that to a large extent, but in hindsight, I can remember all those fun trips, meeting people. I don't remember what grade I got on high school you know whatever exam it was, but I remember the trips we took I remember the people I met I remember going and being involved in government and politics and campaigns, student government elections, silly stuff like that that I thought was most important thing, but I'm glad I did it now. I got those experiences. So I would say hang in there and college is gonna be fun, but don't have too much fun. That's what I would say. 

 

Erin Gorter:  

Well rounded. It's a well-rounded answer. All right, well, thank you again. This was Brent Burchett, the executive director of the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau. So thank you for visiting with us today, Brent. 

 

Brent Burchett:  

Erin, I enjoyed it. Thanks so much. 

 

Thank you for listening to this AgSnacc, a production of the Brock Center for Agricultural Communication at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in collaboration with the South Coast Region Agricultural Education Consortium. For more information, please visit our website at www.agsnacc.com. That’s www.a-g-s-n-a-c-c.com