A Look Back: Leaders reflect on 55 years05/13/2019 | Crop Production Research, Soil Health, Water Quality, Soybean Exports, Biodiesel, Policy, Transportation, Livestock, Ag Awareness, Aquaculture, Economics, Weed Issues, Weather
This article was originally published in the Spring issue of the Iowa Soybean Review.
By Bethany Baratta, ISA senior writer
Past and present leaders of the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) shared perspective about how ISA has been relevant the past 55 years and what the future holds for the industry and soybean farmers.
- Ray Gaesser, American Soybean Association President 2013-14 and ISA President 2006-07
- Lindsay Greiner, ISA President 2019-20
- Ron Heck, ISA President 1993-94 and ASA President 2003-04
- Kirk Leeds, ISA CEO since 1992
- Yvonne Wente, first female chair of the Iowa Soybean Promotion Board 1998-99 and USB Executive Committee 1997
WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT THE HISTORY OF ISA, WHAT STANDS OUT?
HECK: “I was in high school when it was established, so I got to watch most of it unfold. There’s a lot that stands out but watching export markets develop stands out the most. Before 1964, the U.S. government didn’t even keep track of U.S. soybean exports. In the last 55 years, we’ve helped develop that market. But at that time people barely knew what soybeans were. They didn’t know how to use, grow or breed them. They were just a new crop. So, our task was to develop that new crop.”
WENTE: “When I came on the board in 1990, we were trying to get the support of producers for the national checkoff for soybean promotion and research. We went door to door, explaining the importance of the checkoff to farmers. It was a huge challenge getting producers to understand the importance of the funding that was needed to promote their products. People didn’t understand the amount of money it was going to take to get further research for new soy uses like ink, diesel, oil and foods.”
LEEDS: “ISA was a policy organization when it started. But clearly, farmers in 1964 recognized that it was a new crop and farmers didn’t know how to grow it. They had the vision to see that it was a fast-expanding market — they were going to produce too many soybeans and would need markets for surplus soybeans. They also realized it was going to take money to do that. In the first 10 years, one of ISA's key focus areas was the establishment of the checkoff program.”
HOW HAVE ISA’S PROMOTIONAL EFFORTS LED TO SUCCESS ON YOUR FARM AND IN THE INDUSTRY?
GAESSER: “About 19 years ago, it was ISA’s idea to have research and environmental programs, but needed checkoff funds to support it. We talked a lot about it and saw the value. Now, we’re looked at as a leader in environmental research and information for water quality, nutrient sequestration, soil health and a variety of other things not only in Iowa but nationally and globally in some cases.”
WENTE: “We wouldn’t be where we are as a state organization without the county volunteers who spend countless hours doing promotions at filling stations with biodiesel, making soy donuts, touting the benefits of soy oil, distributing soy food samples at grocery stores and demonstrating how soy ink could be beneficial for printing. All of these promotions are vitally important and allow opportunities at every level for producers.”
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO SOYBEAN FARMERS TO HAVE AN ORGANIZATION SPECIFICALLY GEARED TOWARD SOYBEANS?
GREINER: “If we don’t promote our product, who’s going to do it? Nobody. We have to promote our product, and we have to advocate on behalf of the farmers that we’re representing when it comes to legislative issues at the state or national levels. It’s our job to go out and communicate and advocate for the issues that are important to Iowa soybean farmers.”
WENTE: “There are other ag organizations, but each arm of agriculture has issues that are intrinsic to its product. So, we need ISA to address those intrinsic values, so they don’t get lost in the bigger picture.”
GAESSER: “We have been successful, but success never rests. If you want to continue to be successful, you keep working at it.”
WHAT MAKES ISA RELEVANT TO FARMERS IN THE STATE?
GAESSER: “ISA creates opportunities to grow soybeans profitably, whether it’s through research or policy that we need to create exports to build those markets.”
GREINER: “The big thing that makes us most relevant is that it’s run by farmers from the top down. It’s our voice and our challenges that matter when it comes to deciding on research projects or speaking to legislators in Des Moines or Washington, D.C.”
LEEDS: “What’s allowed us to be successful is the willingness to change and evolve, both as farmers and an organization. I’m in awe of how quickly and easily the organization has changed and evolved to deal with today’s challenges. The Iowa Food & Family Project is an example of seeing how the checkoff works with research and market development to promote the industry and inform consumers about agriculture.”
HOW HAS FARMER-LED, FARM-FOCUSED RESEARCH BENEFITED PRODUCERS? WHY WILL IT CONTINUE TO BE IMPORTANT?
GAESSER: “Research programs ISA has created and supported have allowed us as farmers to test new products that we were unsure of and to compare our results with others. It’s kept me from investing in something that wasn’t practical or profitable for my farm. Sometimes it taught us that we should be doing these programs or practices to make us more profitable.”
HECK: “Before ISA established the On-Farm Network®, directors would gather and talk about what we did on our farms and talk about what worked or didn't work. There was no independent source of information anywhere. When I got yields maps of my 1994 crop, it was the first time that any of us had seen a yield map. We were all amazed at the unexplained yield variability. Iowa State University professors had questions, too. Our next board meeting was a strategic planning meeting. Within two hours of seeing the new maps, we had funded a three-year project to learn more. At the end of the project, we had the internet, so we formed the On-Farm Network. It enabled us to gather and share independent information with all farmers on many practices all over the state in a credible database. The On-Farm Network is the high-tech extension of the January 1995 board meeting.”
WENTE: “Grassroots-level research through county test plots and field days have benefited farmers. ISA investment and support will continue to be important in the years to come as farmers see additional challenges.”
HOW WILL THE NEXT 55 YEARS BE DIFFERENT OR SIMILAR TO THE FIRST 55?
LEEDS: “It will all be different, but it will be very much the same. Farmers will still be talking about how we can sell more soybeans, how they can maximize their productivity in a sustainable, profitable way. There will still be regulatory pressure and consumers who still want to learn more about our product.”
WENTE: “When I came on the board, the average yield for soybeans was 34 bushels per acre. Now the national average is in the 50s. Some issues will remain the same as we continue increasing production. We will need to find additional markets and more utilization for our beans.”
GREINER: “I’ve been farming 40 years, and I’ve seen a lot of changes from the way I farmed in 1978 compared to the way I farm today. Tractors steer themselves. Planters vary the rate of seeding. Equipment is larger. Technology has changed a lot in the last 10 years, but we’ve seen just the tip of what it's going to do to farming.”
WHAT’S THE ROLE OF ISA IN THE FUTURE?
GAESSER: “ISA has a responsibility to help the industry, no matter what it is — policy, research or next-generation farmers or customer relationships.”
GREINER: “We have to continue providing value to our members. As long as we have the mentality of looking out for soybean farmers, we’re going to adapt and change to any challenges that come our way.”
HECK: “ISA will still be expanding opportunities and delivering results and making it a better place for Iowa soybean farmers.”
LEEDS: “The needs of our farmers might change, but as long as we evolve with them we’ll be just as important — if not more important — in the next 55 years.”
Contact Bethany Baratta at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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