April Hemmes and Brock Grubbs

Seeing the power of U.S. soybeans in Central and South America

April 30, 2024 | Jeff Hutton

ISA members travel to South America to see the power of U.S. soybeans.

Seeing is indeed believing and if you ask April Hemmes and Brock Grubbs, they know the positive impact the soybean checkoff has made around the globe.

Hemmes, the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) District 2 director from Franklin County, and Grubbs, an ISA farmer-member from Perry, recently traveled to Panama and Colombia as part of the United Soybean Board’s (USB) “See For Yourself” tour.

USB selected Grubbs and Hemmes, who also serves as a USB director, and nearly 20 others to travel to Central and South America to see and evaluate the work of the checkoff — from the use of U.S. soy domestically to its export to customers around the world. The group met with customers, discussed aquaculture and learned about the soybean industry’s contribution to animal ag and how checkoff investments are opening up the world to U.S. producers.

As part of their journey, the duo from Iowa shared some of their thoughts. Here are a few dispatches from their trek:


Hemmes: Our first night in Panama City we had a great presentation by Soybean Transportation Coalition Executive Director Mike Steenhoek about the Panama Canal. This was my first trip to both Panama and Colombia, so I was excited to learn about our checkoff investments there. Everyone said, “Oh they aren’t taking anything through the canal, it’s too dry!” Not true. They have cut the trips in half and the most valuable (meaning those who will pay the most) have priority. Unfortunately, that is not soybean mass bulk ships. We were lucky to see a ship go through the new canal. After seeing both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the canal we also had a presentation by the Port Authority. It is always interesting what you learn. The engineering and innovation they produced in the late 1800s is amazing.

Grubbs: We went to a few local supermarkets and checked out products they were selling that had a U.S. Soy stamp on them such as soybean oil and frozen meats. The supermarkets were neat for a variety of reasons, but one of the things I found most interesting was not only the size but also what was being sold. From the exterior, they looked like any average U.S. grocery store; but then when we walked inside, we could quickly see they were much larger. One of the stores had three stories, and besides groceries, there was clothing, furniture, electronics, tools and household appliances. It truly was a one-stop shop. Later that afternoon, we departed Panama City and flew to Bogota, Colombia. Continued on pg 20.

Large ship going through lock


Hemmes: We headed off to Colombia. What a beautiful scenic country. So many hills, everywhere. How do they get around? Tunnels! We had a great welcome dinner and learned about the Colombian market. They love our U.S. value-added goods, meaning pork and poultry. There was a ban on poultry allegedly because of avian influenza, but many agree it (the ban) was a political move on Colombia’s part. But they do love U.S. pork and beef and we have many promotions there with the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) and the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council (USAPEEC). It was good for me, as USB’s demand team chair, to see what they did there with our checkoff investments. Lots of signage and displays. They have also partnered with chefs, and they are using American meats in their restaurants. We were treated to many meals featuring U.S. products.

Grubbs: After arriving in Bogota, we were up early again the next morning to fly to Neiva, Colombia, to visit an aquaculture farm. I had always heard of people trying aquaculture, and knew it was done but had never seen it firsthand. The name of the farm was Piscola Los Camimos, and they grew tilapia fish in what are called “raceways.” The food they feed the fish is 30% U.S. soybean meal. That afternoon we were able to visit the processing plant for the fish. It is largely a hands-on process as the fish go from being delivered alive to being boxed, packaged and shipped.

Hemmes: We went there to see an In-Pond Raceway System (IPRS) for Red Tilapia. This is a system that ISA helped to fund first in China. The practice is now all over the world.

(According to the Soy Aquaculture Alliance, IPRS circulates water like a river to distribute oxygen, manage temperature and control bacteria. Instead of combating algae and other organisms, the system mirrors a natural ecosystem to manage phytoplankton growth to assimilate biomass. And rather than leaving the stock vulnerable to the elements and prey, their confined net-covered raceway leads to improved survival rates.)

Grubbs: We started off the next day with a trip to a local market. This was a bit of a culture shock for me because I wasn’t sure what I was about to see. The local market was a huge building with individual “stores” that sold a variety of things, but most of what was being sold were fruits, vegetables and meats. One thing that stood out for me was an employee carrying a pig carcass over his shoulder through the market to be butchered. I had to chuckle when I thought about what would have been done if that would have happened in the United States. Once we were done looking around the inside of the market, we walked around the flower market outside. There were thousands of locally-grown flowers being sold. A dozen roses could be bought for just more than $1. The same roses in the States were going to be sold for closer to $100 a week later for Valentine’s Day. Supply and demand as they say. Later that day, we departed for Medellín for the final portion of our trip.

Hemmes: In Medellín, we toured Groupo Bios, a large company that processes U.S. soybeans. I asked why they didn’t import from Brazil when they border the country? Well, they can get a shipment in a few days from the United States and the part of the country where they border Brazil is all rainforest. So, they would have to ship it out anyway.

Grubbs: This day left the biggest impact on me as we visited a Groupo Bios feed mill. Groupo Bios is a huge producer of meat, poultry and eggs. How big are they? They currently have 830 million broiler chickens, 51 million chicken layers, 280,000 sows and 29 million head of cattle. The plant we visited used about 1,000 metric tons of soybean meal a day to produce feed for these different animals around their region. U.S Soy is the key cog that drives the plant. I’ll never forget my visit with Julio, who is second in command of this plant. I asked him about various aspects of the mill. We talked about efficiency and logistics and then I asked him about their employees. He explained to me that because of U.S. soy, they can run their plant more efficiently, and that allows them to pay their employees around $600 a month compared to the average workplace in the region where the average pay is about $300 a month. He then almost started to tear up when he said, “You guys really don’t know how much your soybeans mean to not only our facility but to this country.” This statement moved me in more ways than I can explain and something I will remember for the rest of my life.

Hemmes: We visited many grocery stores that were running USMEF promotions. The highlight of our last day was meeting Álvero Uribe Vélez, the former president of Colombia, who was also instrumental in creating the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement. He was amazing to listen to and his stories were fascinating. He was the first to take on the drug cartels in the country and escaped multiple assassination attempts. He spoke to us during breakfast, then we went to his house for supper; he later showed us his horses. His guards said it was the most relaxed they had seen him in years. When we asked why he took on the drug lords, he said to love your country means sometimes you have to do difficult things.

Grubbs: The next day we all flew home. While there were so many memories, stories and friends made on this trip, the main thing that I am going to remember from this “See For Yourself” trip is that I matter. Grubbs Land & Cattle, a century farm in Perry, Iowa, matters. Your farm, wherever it may be in Iowa, matters. There are people all over the world counting on U.S. soy every day for more reasons than we will ever know. This trip proved that our checkoff dollars really matter and there are people all over the world who are counting on us.