Kirk Leeds

Farmers: The Heartbeat of the Iowa Soybean Association

December 16, 2020 | Aaron Putze, APR

Funded by farmers. Led by farmers. Driven to deliver results for farmers. That’s the Iowa Soybean Association. Kirk Leeds, ISA CEO, shares his insights about the funding, focus and philosophy of an association that has changed a lot – and yet so little – since its founding in 1964. 

How is ISA funded?

Since establishment of the national soybean checkoff in 1991, collections under the program are tied to the net market price of soybeans – or one-half of 1%. Half of that total remittance remains in Iowa; the other funds the National Soybean Board. ISA also acquires non-checkoff funding through our subsidiaries, industry partnerships and Advocate memberships. 

How does this checkoff formula impact ISA’s program focus and accountability?

Checkoff collections reflect the increase and decrease in soybean prices. Unlike checkoff programs that are tied to production, the soybean checkoff is based on the commodity’s value. As collections have increased, so have the programs and activities we conduct. Just the opposite is true when soybean prices decline. This approach keeps farmer board members focused on enhancing the value of soybeans. For staff, it helps us see the industry through the eyes of the farmers we serve. When farmers struggle on the price side, our organization has leaner times. It’s an accountability thing.

How does ISA establish budget and program priorities?

It starts with 22 farmer directors collectively deciding where they want to invest checkoff and non-checkoff resources. Directors participate in strategic planning to establish broad, big goals. Then they determine specific strategies and tactics. Staff go to work to bring them a proposed budget with detailed proposals. Directors reject some, accept others and modify most. Farmers make the decisions about where their money goes and it’s a role they take seriously. I’m proud to be associated with a board that shows up and is prepared to make decisions.

How do directors balance local and global perspectives when making funding decisions?

They come to the table and share what’s going on at their farm. They do this with a deep understanding and appreciation of the broader industry. I work with 22 directors who not only are day-to-day farmers, but also think about global, consumer, ag and geo-political trends. This enables them to make sound decisions about investing resources. We’re always identifying future board members and leaders who can come to the table ready to contribute to the organization’s strategic direction.

How does ISA measure its effectiveness?

There is no perfect measurement, so we look at several metrics. Some evaluate a specific tactic and whether it delivered feedback and results. We also look for indicators of results and progress. We have several organizational goals that individually may not be entirely what we’re all about, but collectively indicate that we’re making progress. 

What are they?

We talk about membership growth, leveraging outside dollars and our Net Promoter Score (NPS). If we’re adding more farmers, engaging farmers and having them speak positively about us and are attracting outside investments, then we’re doing what farmers value. 

What program priorities have stood the test of time?

Farmers have always wanted a balanced portfolio of investments. This includes high-quality research that lowers the cost of production, produces soybeans in a more sustainable way and improves profitability. They want to build demand, both globally and domestically. I remember when we didn’t sell soybeans to China. Today, look what’s happened, not just in China, but in growing markets throughout the world, including the Philippines, Thailand, Egypt, Pakistan and Bangladesh. 

Farmers also value investing in information and outreach to every soybean farmer who invests in the checkoff. You can have all kinds of programs and activities, but if farmers don’t know about them or aren’t participating in them, the value of those investments and efforts is diminished.

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

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