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Building demand, exports focus of new USB leader

Article cover photo
United Soybean Board CEO Polly Ruhland talks about the importance of international marketing at the U.S. Soybean Export Council’s International Marketing Dialogue in St. Louis on Nov. 28. (Photo by Mathew Wilde/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Matthew Wilde, ISA senior writer

Polly Ruhland joked Tuesday she knows enough about soybeans to be dangerous after 28 days on the job.

But the new CEO of the United Soybean Board (USB), who recently led the Cattlemen‘s Beef Promotion & Research Board, understands what’s important to farmers she now serves: International markets and building demand.

Ruhland shared her vision pertaining to soybean exports, checkoff investments and future success during the U.S. Soybean Export Council’s (USSEC) International Marketing Dialogue in St. Louis. Information gleaned at the annual two-day event helps shape USSEC programs and direction for fiscal year 2019 and beyond.

Improving profit opportunities for U.S. soybean farmers by boosting sales abroad and building preference for U.S. soybean products is at the top of Ruhland’s to-do list. That means continued USB investment — $27 million this fiscal year —in USSEC soybean marketing and education activities.

“We will continue to support that to the same degree or higher in the future under my leadership,” Ruhland told farmers and industry stakeholders.

After two record U.S. soybean harvests resulting in large carryover stocks and low prices, Ruhland added that customer service needs to be top of mind.

“One of the big reasons I was drawn to soy is the reputation for innovation,” she said. “Soy leadership is not afraid to tackle challenges, and one of the biggest is to increase export demand for our products.

“I think one of the smartest ways to drive enhanced value for U.S. soy is to have a relentless focus on end users,” Ruhland continued. “Understand what they want and meet those needs. In other words, a complete customer mindset as we move forward.”

Jim Sutter, USSEC executive director, and Polly Ruhland, United Soybean Board CEO, discuss soybean demand and exports Nov. 28 at the USSEC International Marketing Dialogue in St. Louis. (photo by Matthew Wilde/Iowa Soybean Association)

USB’s chief executive said the organization’s strategic plan, which guides farmer leaders’ checkoff investment decisions, does just that. It targets soybean meal, oil and sustainability.

Customers want higher protein content, essential amino acids, proof soybeans are sustainably raised through the U.S. Soybean Sustainability Assurance Protocol and high oleic soybean oil, Ruhland said. All are good examples of ways the checkoff is leveraging funds to increase the value and preference for U.S. soy.

“The strategic plan serves as a roadmap for maximizing profit opportunities,” Ruhland said.

Karey Claghorn liked what she heard. The Iowa Soybean Association chief operating officer believes Ruhland’s experience and drive will help farmers and take an already successful organization to new heights.

Building demand is essential to improve the competitiveness of all soybean farmers, Claghorn said.

“She knows trade is critical,” she continued. “Like beef, soybean farmers produce more than the U.S. can consume. Polly supports investing in demand-building programs as USB has always done, which is critical for Iowa.”

Over the last 10 years, USB has increased USSEC funding by 22 percent. That’s a good thing, Claghorn said, after a bin-busting harvest.

U.S. soybean production is forecast at 4.43 billion bushels, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates. The average yield is pegged at 49.5 bushels per acre.

The USDA projects Iowa’s farmers produced 557.2 million bushels of soybeans averaging 56 bushels per acre.

“Polly wants to learn and meet farmers. She’s genuinely concerned about their success,” Claghorn said.

Ruhland said she made the “dangerous” comment because she has a lot to learn about the soybean industry despite an extensive background in agriculture.

“Taking over an organization that is successful, you have to be careful not to make assumptions,” Ruhland said. “Studying USB’s history and learning everything I can from farmers and stakeholders is important.”

Ruhland succeeded John Becherer, who retired after 23 years with USB. He will work with the organization and support that transition process through the end of the year.

USB leaders touted Ruhland’s executive management expertise. Officials said her extensive background in agricultural nonprofit management, strategic planning, communications and regulatory compliance set her apart.

Ruhland graduated from Colorado State University with a Master’s Degree in agriculture and the University of Colorado with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English and communications.

“Polly brings a platform of experience and expertise that parallels the opportunities and challenges facing the soy industry — building demand in domestic and global markets, creating consensus throughout the commodity supply chain, solidifying partnerships with national and state organizations and being an industry catalyst,” USB Chair John Motter said in a statement.

After 25 years in the beef industry, Ruhland said it was time for a change.

“It’s exciting to be a part of the innovation and forward thinking of U.S. soybean farmers and the industry,” she said.

For permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos contact Aaron Putze at aputze@iasoybeans.com.

©2017 Iowa Soybean Association On-Farm Network®. All rights reserved. On-Farm Network® is a registered trademark of the Iowa Soybean Association, Ankeny, IA.Portions of some On-Farm Network trials are paid for in total or in part by the soybean checkoff.

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August 2017 Contact Ann Clinton for past publications.