Announcing the HRI Leadership Academy Class of 2025

Horticultural Research Institute (HRI) Leadership Academy logo header

Horticultural Research Institute Leadership Academy logo | HRI

The Horticultural Research Institute (HRI), the AmericanHort Foundation, announces 11 new class members for the 2025 HRI Leadership Academy. The class will be introduced at Cultivate’24 being held from July 13 to 16, 2024, at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, OH. 

This will be the third class to complete the nearly year-long program, which is designed to develop leaders on all levels of the green industry. Program participants will grow personally and professionally through leadership and business skill training, engagement with the green industry network, and the completion of a real-world project. 

“The HRI board is pleased to see this program continue to grow as it enters its third year. The response from the industry has been positive and the candidate pool creates a competitive process each year as class members are selected, “ says Leigh Geschwill, HRI Board President and co-owner of F and B Farms in Oregon. “It’s exciting to meet the next cohort and it makes me very confident that the future of our industry is bright as these leaders emerge.” 


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The 2025 Class Members: 

Christopher Brown Jr. of Virginia, as part of the HRI Leadership Academy Class of 2025

Christopher Brown Jr. | HRI

Christopher Brown Jr. – Virginia – Christopher, a second-generation nurseryman, attributes his personal and professional growth to the horticulture industry. His career spans various roles, from weeding as a teen to being a grower, propagator, and shipping manager, to his current position as Head of Purchasing at Lancaster Farms, a leading nursery in the southeast. A Virginia-certified horticulturist, Christopher has actively contributed to the industry through his involvement with the Virginia Nursery and Landscape Association (VNLA), the VNLA Research Foundation, and the International Plant Propagators Society (IPPS). Known for his forward-thinking views, Christopher emphasizes the need for the next generation of leaders to collaborate and innovate to ensure the industry’s future success. 

Crystal Cady of Oregon, as part of the HRI Leadership Academy Class of 2025

Crystal Cady | HRI

Crystal Cady – Oregon – Crystal is a dedicated horticulture professional with over 25 years of experience, including owning her own grower-retailer business. Her well-rounded career reflects her passion for the independent garden center segment. Currently, she serves as CEO-Designate for the Northwest Nursery Buyers Association, set to assume the CEO role on Jan. 1, 2025. Crystal has worked for the Oregon Association of Nurseries and actively volunteers on the Far West Show committee, among other volunteer roles within and beyond the green industry. Recognized by Greenhouse Product News’ 40 Under 40 – Class of 2013, she has also received OAN’s Retailer of the Year and Young Professional of the Year awards. Crystal is committed to collaboration to help strengthen the industry. 

Pablo Costa of British Columbia, Canada, as part of the HRI Leadership Academy Class of 2025

Pablo Costa | HRI

Pablo Costa – British Columbia, Canada – A native of Chile, Pablo grew up on a cherry farm and has dedicated his horticulture career to continuous improvement and operational efficiency. As the Director of Operations and Growing for Van Belle Nursery Finished Plants in British Columbia, he oversees teams managing everything from growing to shipping. Bilingual and personable, Pablo connects well with diverse individuals. Known for his eagerness to learn, he asks thoughtful questions before making decisions. Pablo embraces the values of continual improvement, remains calm under pressure, and is respected by his peers. His leadership and commitment to excellence have made a significant impact on the nursery’s success. 

Mason Day of Illinois, as part of the HRI Leadership Academy Class of 2025

Mason Day | HRI

Mason Day – Illinois – Growing up in a quaint Michigan town, Mason’s roots in horticulture run deep, cultivated through years at his family’s retail greenhouse. From launching a tech-driven venture, Grow It, to his current role as Director of Growth and Development at JR Peters Inc., Mason embodies entrepreneurial spirit. Actively contributing to the industry, he co-chairs the National Initiative for Consumer Horticulture (NICH), serves on America in Bloom‘s board, and has served on the AmericanHort Generation Next community. With a penchant for industry insights, Mason has penned articles for numerous publications. He was recognized in the Greenhouse Product News 40 Under 40 – Class of 2017. A visionary with an upbeat demeanor, Mason’s optimism and broad perspective resonate with peers and colleagues. 

Bob Dickman of New York, as part of the HRI Leadership Academy Class of 2025

Bob Dickman | HRI

Bob Dickman – New York – Bob, the fifth-generation leader of Dickman Farms, cultivated his work ethic from an early age on the family farm. After graduating high school, he enlisted in the Marines, where he excelled, earning honors in boot camp and infantry school and leading numerous missions as a squad leader. This military background shapes his leadership as the General Manager of an expansive 18-acre greenhouse operation with over 100 employees. Bob’s commitment to the industry extends through his past role as an AmericanHort board member and his current involvement in the AmericanHort Greenhouse community connectors. His dedication and achievements were recognized with the 2021 Greenhouse Grower Operation of the Year award and inclusion in the prestigious Greenhouse Product News 40 Under 40 – Class of 2014. 

Aaron Dillon of California, as part of the HRI Leadership Academy Class of 2025

Aaron Dillon | HRI

Aaron Dillon – California – Aaron, the Vice President and General Manager at Four Winds Growers, is a fourth-generation citrus nurseryman from California who is actively involved in both his industry and community. Growing up in a family business, he gained experience in various roles, preparing him to lead the company successfully. Aaron faced adversity when the industry confronted the Asian Citrus Psyllid threat, forcing difficult decisions and instilling an appreciation for regulatory policies. He has served as President of the California Citrus Nursery Society and has held positions on the California Citrus Nursery Board, Plant California Alliance, and numerous other committees and organizations. Aaron’s passion for sports has led him to compete during his youth and coach his children’s teams, teaching him the value of teamwork and a growth mindset. 

Jesse Eastman of Colorado, as part of the HRI Leadership Academy Class of 2025

Jesse Eastman | HRI

Jesse Eastman – Colorado – Jesse leads Fort Collins Nursery, where he has worked for over 25 years. Since taking over from his father, he has restructured the management team to boost efficiency and profitability. The nursery has significantly expanded in sales, employees, and production acres. A Colorado Certified Nursery Professional, Jesse has held leadership roles with Friends and Gardens on Spring Creek, the Colorado Nursery and Greenhouse Association, and the Garden Centers of Colorado boards. Known for his strong communication and employee-first approach, Jesse has fostered strong loyalty among his team. His leadership has propelled the nursery to new heights, and he looks forward to tackling future challenges constructively. 

Sonya Westervelt of Virginia, as part of the HRI Leadership Academy Class of 2025

Sonya Westervelt | HRI

Sonya Westervelt – Virginia – Sonya, the Chief of Wholesale Sales at Saunders Brothers Inc., drives growth through forward-thinking collaboration. Renowned for her adept communication and team-building skills, she fosters consensus and empowers her team to excel. Recognized for her achievements, she received the Young Professional of the Year awards from the Virginia Nursery and Landscape Association (VNLA) and the Southern Nursery Association (SNA) in 2017. Recently honored in the Greenhouse Product News 40 Under 40, she also earned the Outstanding Recent Alumna award from Virginia Tech. She is actively engaged in various committees and associations, including VNLA, the Delaware Center for Horticulture, and the Virginia Tech Alumni Association. Sonya’s impact extends beyond her professional realm to her community involvement with her local church and school district. 

Paul Vaandrager of British Columbia, Canada, as part of the HRI Leadership Academy Class of 2025

Paul Vaandrager | HRI

Paul Vaandrager – British Columbia, Canada – Paul is an experienced Canadian Nursery and Greenhouse Certification Manager, who currently serves as the Supply Chain Manager at Qualitree Propagators Inc. Recognized as adaptable and collaborative, Paul seamlessly orchestrates teamwork among internal teams, suppliers, and stakeholders, propelling them toward common goals. A natural motivator, he fosters a culture of achievement and leads by example, readily diving into tasks alongside his colleagues. With LEAN certification in both green and yellow belts, Paul commits to continuous development. Beyond his professional pursuits, he generously dedicates his time to community service as a volunteer firefighter, youth leader at his church, and mentor for aspiring baseball players, embodying his commitment to making a positive impact beyond the workplace. 

Deanna van Klaveren of California, as part of the HRI Leadership Academy Class of 2025

Deanna van Klaveren | HRI

Deanna van Klaveren – California – Deanna is a dedicated advocate and educator for California agriculture. As the Chief Operations Officer and co-owner of Generation Growers Inc., she excels in developing organizational processes and training staff. For over 30 years, Deanna has significantly contributed to the green industry through her involvement with the California Association of Nurseries and Garden Centers (CANGC, now Plant Alliance) and the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation (CALF). An alumna of the California Agriculture Leadership Program, she has been honored with the CALF Profiles in Leadership Award, the CANGC Young Nursery Professional of the Year Award, and the CANGC Ron Regan Education and Career Award. Deanna is committed to sharing the industry’s story and advocating for its needs. 

Chris Wichman of California, as part of the HRI Leadership Academy Class of 2025

Chris Wichman | HRI

Chris Wichman – California – Chris is the Production Manager at Belmont Nursery, a 20-acre growing facility and garden retail operation. Renowned for his collaborative approach, Chris values listening to diverse perspectives and fostering a team-oriented problem-solving environment. He prioritizes a culture of engagement, measurement, and accountability. Chris is actively involved in the industry, contributing to the county and state Farm Bureau, the California Water Institute, the Center for Irrigation Technology, and the International Plant Propagators Society (IPPS). His community service includes volunteering as a firefighter and participating in local clean-up efforts. Chris has also shared his expertise in panel discussions at Cultivate and holds the AmericanHort Greenhouse Technician Certification designation. 

“Effective leadership and continuous development are essential for the success of green industry businesses,” says Ken Fisher, AmericanHort President and CEO. “We are impressed with the quality of the class members and are excited to support their growth as leaders within their companies, communities, and our industry. The HRI Leadership Academy represents a significant investment in the future of our industry.” 

The curriculum is designed specifically to meet industry needs and is organized to include Strategy, Leadership and People Management, Numbers and Advocacy, and the Value Chain. In-person classes begin in September 2024. Course principles are put to practical application through a course-long leadership project which will be presented at Cultivate’25 being held from July 12 to 15, 2025.  

Applications for the 2025-26 class will open in the fall. For more information and to download an informational brochure on the HRI Leadership Academy, visit the academy website or contact Jennifer Gray at [email protected] or by calling 614-487-1117. 

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