Melding interests, experiences to educate farmers

By: Brent Adams

Natalie Gupton grew up on a farm but took a different career path—that is until a chance meeting with a dynamic entrepreneur steered her back toward her roots.

Gupton, 33, earned her bachelor’s degree in human resources management with a minor in agriculture from Western Kentucky University. She also has a master’s degree in nonprofit management from the University of Kentucky. She was working for the Norton Children’s Hospital Foundation in Louisville when she met Amy Wolfe, president and CEO of AgSafe, a Modesto, California-based nonprofit organization that provides worker safety, health, human resources and food-safety solutions for the food and farming industries. Its offerings include training in sexual harassment prevention, tractor and forklift operation, heat illness prevention, food safety for harvest crews and supervisors and night work safety. The organization also conducts human resources and safety audits and pesticide compliance services.

Through conversations Wolfe and Gupton had as they served together on the board of directors for the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Wolfe saw an opportunity for Gupton to join AgSafe and use her expertise in nonprofit management and her knowledge about farming to have an immediate impact.

“I was drawn to her as a younger member of the notoriously ‘older’ profession, her fastidious attention to detail, willingness to speak her mind, and unabashed enthusiasm for her home state,” Wolfe said.  “When the time came for our organization to consider adding someone to the team who could spearhead our efforts beyond the West Coast, Natalie immediately came to mind.  I had seen her display so many of the characteristics I knew was needed in this position—tenacity, dedication, a willingness to do the work needed to understand complicated issues, motivation, and drive. Plus, she possessed the unique blend of knowledge around how a nonprofit organization works including successful development and the realities of farming today. In all honesty, she was the only person for the job.”

Gupton joined AgSafe in January 2016 and has flourished in her role as director of business services and industry relations. Her duties include business development, grant writing, conference planning and networking through various trade shows. She also travels the country teaching courses on topics such as USDA, U.S. Department of Labor and OSHA compliance and first aid and CPR.

“I love AgSafe’s mission because it’s about helping farmers do their job and providing them the resources to ensure that their workforce is safe,” Gupton said.

Much of her drive comes from work ethic instilled in her on her family’s farm, which is now in its seventh generation in the South-Central Kentucky community of Monticello. She watched as her father—a farmer and entrepreneur—poured his heart and soul into the operation.

“We grew tobacco during its heyday, and the planting and harvesting was such a community and family affair,” said Gupton, who, like many farm families, grew up just down the road from her grandparents, separated by farmland.

“It was very family centered,” Gupton recalled. “I have many memories of playing on the farm, and later helping out. It was hard work, but that work ethic that’s instilled on the farm is so important.”

When she trains farmers on safety issues, she approaches each one like she is teaching her own father, David Denney, a nose-to-the-grindstone, perpetually pressed for time guy who sometimes overlooks safety measures in the spirit of just getting the job done and moving on to the next task.

“If I can break through his habits, then I have achieved my mission,” Gupton said. “He and many others just like him are working with dangerous pieces of equipment and often taking safety for granted. One slip of the hand in one split second and everything can go awry.”

Although Gupton gravitated toward nonprofit management in school, she said she opted for a minor in agriculture because she “loved the ag content” and loved learning about what makes the ag industry go.

At AgSafe, Gupton is a part of a team of 11 in an entirely female-operated business that has offices in Modesto, Louisville and Cary, North Carolina. It’s a position that suits her well.

“We are women driven toward our mission, and in the process creating an empowering environment in which women can work autonomously, creating opportunities for themselves along the way,” Gupton said. “Amy invests in us and helps us grow professionally. I am lucky to be in such a supportive environment.”

Wolfe gets excited when she talks about what Gupton has been able to accomplish during her tenure with AgSafe.

“Since joining the organization, she has undertaken the herculean task of building name recognition and buy-in to our mission where none existed before,” Wolfe said. “She has been tenacious in sharing our message, leveraging relationships and building trust, and that hard work is paying off.”

Wolfe noted that Gupton has been a guest lecturer on human resources in agriculture at the University of Kentucky and North Carolina State University and has presented at the American Farm Bureau Federation annual convention. She also has shared farm family safety tips across the Midwest and Great Lakes regions, including Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. For the past two years, she has been a guest commentator on RFD-TV during National Farm Safety Week, sharing her expertise with viewers across the country.

“Most importantly, Natalie has brought thoughtful and much-needed perspective on the challenges impacting farmers in ways our California team wouldn't readily understand,” Wolfe said. “She is an invaluable member of our team and I'm looking forward to many more years of helping keep farmers and farm workers safe together.”

Though the road isn’t always easy for women in agriculture, she said she believes she is respected by the people she deals with on a daily basis. And she is proud to carry on a family tradition established by her mother, Sharon Denney, whom she considers a trailblazer in the ag industry. She retired in 2017 after 36 years with the USDA Farm Service Agency.

“I am proud to carry on a family tradition,” Gupton said. “In addition to my parents, my aunts and uncles farm and it’s just very much a part of my heritage. Farmers are resilient, and that’s one of the reasons I love working in this industry.”

Gupton said she is encouraged by the opportunities available to women in the ag industry and encourages young women who have an interest in farming or other ag careers to pursue their passion.

“Do lots of research,” she said. “There is more info out there now than ever before, and there are many opportunities in the private, public, nonprofit, academic and research areas of agriculture. Talk to other women who have done those jobs and get involved early on. The more experiences you have the more you’ll set yourself up for success later in life.”

It is a path that Gupton followed, and it has served her well. 

“I was an impressionable young person, and I was just drawn to the info,” Gupton said of learning about the agriculture industry. “And it serendipitously has all worked out.”

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