Black and white photo of harvest.

(Submitted photo)

A Century of Soy: Iowans reflect on their experiences leading ASA

October 12, 2020 | Bethany Baratta

Eight Iowans have led the American Soybean Association (ASA) as president since the organization’s beginning in 1920. The Iowa Soybean Association celebrates the contributions of E.S. Dyas, Howard Roach and Merlyn Groot, now deceased. Marlyn Jorgensen, Ron Heck, John Hoffman, Ray Gaesser and John Heisdorffer reflect on their experiences as presidents of ASA. 

What were the biggest priorities for the American Soybean Association during your term?

Heisdorffer: “Getting the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) signed. Later, the trade war between China and the U.S. began, so we spent a lot of time and attention on trying to mend the trade war. As a farmer, you normally try to hit a problem head on and fix it, but fixing something like trade isn’t that simple.” 

Gaesser: “We pushed to pass the 2012 Farm Bill, which was passed in late January 2014. We urged that Price Loss Coverage (PLC) and Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) were part of the farm bill to let farmers make their own decisions about what coverage option would work best for them. Building the relationships between ASA, the United Soybean Board and the U.S. Soy Export Coalition (USSEC) was also critical as we continued efforts to build trade relationships all over the world.” 

Jorgensen: “Establishing a national soybean checkoff and getting soybeans recognized as a federal crop, which created a floor for soybean prices. Coming off the Farm Crisis, there was a lot of unrest in the ag community because of high interest rates. I lost my best friend and neighbor during the Farm Crisis to suicide, so it was personally important to me that we got soybeans recognized in the federal loan program.” 

Heck: “In 2002, soybeans were recognized as a program crop for the first time, reaching equal status with wheat, rice and corn in farm programs. In 2003, WTO (World Trade Organization) negotiations were a very big deal. Along with the freedom to farm and increasing yields, we had to sell more products overseas. Most of the years were spent getting better trade agreements for soybeans. Other priorities included allowing soy milk to be offered in schools and passage of the first biodiesel tax incentive.” 

Hoffman: “The 2008 Farm Bill was top of mind during the 16 months I served as president. Specifically, ASA was supportive of the risk management tools the farm bill provided. The 2008 Farm Bill provided funding for the Foreign Market Development the Market Access programs. International marketing was also important to the organization, with ASA international marketing the precursor to USSEC.” 

What was your most memorable takeaway or event from your term? 

Heisdorffer: “Two events stick out in my mind. The first was being on stage and shaking President Donald Trump’s hand during the signing of the 2018 Farm Bill. The second was having my family at Commodity Classic with me in Anaheim, California, during my presidency.” 

Gaesser: “It was great building connections with not only people in the state, but also in the nation. The experience also opened my eyes to how the soybean industry works through policy, research, market development and educational efforts to expand U.S. soy’s reach globally.” 

Jorgensen: “A good part of the presidency was traveling to see different soybean-growing states and speaking at annual meetings. I made a ton of new friends, many of whom I still see to this day.” 

Heck: “The realization that the worldwide soybean family is a real thing. You see that from the beginning by being involved in the county and state levels, and at the national level you meet people who really care about soybeans. As president you meet people internationally, and you realize that soybeans are more than just a crop, they are part of a worldwide culture.” 

Hoffman: “We had worked for more than a year talking about extension of the biodiesel tax incentive but couldn’t get our foot in the door to talk to Mark Prater, who was then chief tax counsel for the U.S. Senate Finance Committee. Having a personal connection with Sen. Charles Grassley, a neighbor and chair of the Senate Finance Committee, I called his local office to ask for that opportunity. By the end of the day, an appointment was set up to have a conversation with Prater, and we eventually secured the extension of the biodiesel tax incentive.” 

How did serving as ASA president help you grow as a farmer?

Heisdorffer: “I grew as a leader. Being ASA president helped me see how leadership really works and how respected the position is. It made me think about how everyone working together can accomplish something that no farmer can accomplish on their own.” 

Gaesser: “Being away from the farm, I really appreciated the team I had at home and how they stepped up to make sure things got done properly all year. In turn, this allowed the team at home to build as we invested in the next generation.” 

Jorgensen: “It made me a better businessman because I was dealing also with ASA budgets. I learned how to evaluate risks/ rewards more effectively.” 

Heck: “You see so much, do so much and meet so many great people. It gives you a broader viewpoint and makes life wider and better.” 

Hoffman: “It developed my perspective of how critically important ASA is to soybean farmers in Iowa and across the country.” 

Why was having Iowa’s voice heard important?

Heck: “During my time as president, there were three Iowans in key positions: Sen. Grassley was the ranking member of senate finance committee, Allen Johnson was the chief agriculture negotiator for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and Sen. Harkin, was chair of the senate ag committee. From my viewpoint, we were able to get these priorities accomplished because we had those important state connections.” 

Heisdorffer: “Being a top soybean-producing state, we were a leader. As Iowans, for example, we were asked for input about the Market Facilitation Program, and we were thrilled that most of what we suggested was actually used as framework for the program.” 

Gaesser: “ISA has been so forward-thinking in the areas of water quality, conservation and environmental stewardship, so people looked up to ISA for those values and experiences. It was great sharing not only what we were doing, but to also expand those ideas nationally.” 

Jorgensen: “Iowa is a leader in soybean production, and proved to be focused on the bigger picture, especially during discussions regarding how the checkoff would be collected. It took a lot of statesmanship not only from Iowans, but also from folks from the south to bring it all together.”

Hoffman: “ISA is very progressive. We’re also ahead of the curve in environmental programming and understanding policy because agriculture is an economic driver in the state. I think that gave us a leg up when it came to developing solutions on the national level.” 

This story was originally published in the October 2020 issue of the Iowa Soybean Review.