Jul 20, 2020
By Dave Buchholz • From Summer 2020 American Soybean Magazine
Pictured are 25 farmer leaders who have served as president of the American Soybean Association going as far back as 1981. They all participated in ASA’s 100th anniversary activities at 2020 Commodity Classic. Seated left to right: Ray Gaesser (IA), Ron Heck (IA), Alan Kemper (IN), Marlyn Jorgensen (IA), James Lee Adams (GA), Gary Riedel (MO), David Erickson (IL), Mike Yost (MN) and Marc Curtis (MS). Standing left to right: Steve Wellman (NE), Davie Stephens (KY), John Heisdorffer (IA), Ron Moore (IL), Charles Hamon (KS), John Long (SC), Wade Cowan (TX), Bill Gordon (MN), Danny Murphy (MS), Richard Ostlie (ND), Johnny Dodson (TN), John Hoffman (IA), Neal Bredehoeft (MO), Bart Ruth (NE), Richard Wilkins (DE) and Tony Anderson (OH).
As part of the celebration of the First Soy Century, former ASA presidents (noted in this story with their home state and year as ASA president) have shared their memories and experiences. This story highlights the importance of policy, some key ASA policy achievements and personal stories that illustrate ASA’s impact on the profitability of U.S. soybean farmers. Hear more stories at ASA100years.com.
The list of ASA policy achievements over the past century is long and varied. But every policy victory has been the result of having the right farmer-leaders in the right places at the right time to speak up, be heard and make a powerful difference as decisions are being made that affect soybean farmers.
ASA President Tony Anderson meets with President George W. Bush at the White House in 2001 to discuss support for Trade Promotion Authority.
“Policy is where everything begins,” said Johnny Dodson (Tennessee/2008-09). “You have to be present in Congress, the federal agencies and the state capitols to get a better shake for soybeans. If farmers don’t do it for themselves, somebody else will do it for us—and we don’t need to have that happen.”
David Erickson (Illinois/1996-97) believes many people think “lobbying” is always about pushing for a specific issue or policy initiative. “You actually spend 95% of your time talking, educating, informing and answering questions—and maybe 5% of your time actually asking an elected official to do something specific for the soybean industry,” Erickson said. “It’s critical that ASA keep engaged and involved so we can maintain that trust and those important relationships that really matter when it’s time for a policy decision to be made.”
Steve Wellman (Nebraska/2011-12) said, “It’s about relationships. You need to build the trust and familiarity that gets you in the door for meaningful conversations that can help move your policy initiatives forward.”
ASA President David Erickson talks about important soybean issues and initiatives during a media interview in the ASA booth at Trade Talk at NAFB’s 1996 National Convention.
As one reviews ASA’s policy successes over the decades, it’s clear that the association—and U.S. soybean farmers as a whole—have benefited from ASA’s farmer-driven, grassroots approach to policy development that is laser-focused on the soybean industry.
Tony Anderson (Ohio/2000-01) compares policy to a roadmap. “Having a policy in place tells you whether to turn right or left in any situation,” he said. “Without that policy roadmap, you could invest a lot of time and energy being lost—and miss a lot of opportunities in the process.”
Considering its importance, policy development unsurprisingly is more often a marathon than a sprint. “The 2012 Farm Bill eventually became the 2013 Farm Bill during my term as president—and then became the 2014 Farm Bill when I became chairman,” said Danny Murphy (Mississippi/2012-13).
However, sometimes a sprint is required. During Richard Wilkins’ term (Delaware/2015-16), a proposed law in Vermont threatened to create nationwide confusion and concern regarding the labeling of GMOs in food. “We mobilized quickly and sent many farmers and other stakeholders to the Hill numerous times to carry the message that we could not allow these promulgators of mythology to be able to win this battle,” Wilkins said. ASA’s work helped create a uniform approach to food labeling that was sensible and friendly to food processors, farmers and consumers.
ASA has built a well-deserved reputation as a reliable, sensible and unified voice for U.S. soybean farmers when policy is being crafted. It also helps that ASA has been consistently visible on Capitol Hill for a very long time.
During a push for a biodiesel incentive, Alan Kemper (Indiana/2010-11) and two fellow Indiana soybean farmers were roaming the halls of the Senate office building when they decided to walk, unannounced, into the offices of New York Senator Hillary Clinton. They ended up having a 20-minute hallway conversation with a staffer during which they learned biodiesel was already being used in ferries in New York harbor.
Better yet, it turned out that the staffer was originally a farm kid from Indiana. “He was very excited that someone from an Indiana soybean farm had stopped by to talk about biodiesel,” Kemper said. “It proves that it’s a good thing to consistently be on the Hill. You never know when you might make a connection that makes a difference.”
The period of 1988-1990 was a pivotal point in ASA history. And again, the stars aligned to have a team of capable, dedicated farmer-leaders at the helm. “It was a three-year period that probably changed the course of the American Soybean Association,” said Marlyn Jorgensen (Iowa/1989-90).
In that time, ASA filed a 301 complaint against the European Union for unfair subsidies, which ASA eventually won—establishing ASA as a major player on the international stage. ASA successfully pushed to have soybeans designated as an official crop in the Farm Bill. And if that wasn’t enough, ASA decided to pursue the creation of a national soybean checkoff.
ASA President Marlyn Jorgensen (center) visiting Taipei, Taiwan in 1990 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of ASA’s office in Taiwan.
During those three years, ASA was led by Wayne Bennett, Sr. (Arkansas/1987-88), James Lee Adams (Georgia/1988-89) and Jorgenson. The fortuitous combination of top ASA leaders from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line in that period helped the association quell soybean farmers’ concerns regarding details of the Farm Bill and the national checkoff. For example, northern soybean farmers wanted a pricing floor under soybeans to protect against potential disaster. Farmers in the south were concerned about planting restrictions in terms of acres.
“Together, James Lee and I spent about 500 days over two years sharing a foxhole in Washington, D.C.,” Jorgenson said. “We had Southern politicians shooting at me, and we had Northern politicians shooting at James Lee, and we had to put up the firewall to make good things happen.”
“When ASA walks into the offices of a policymaker, they know they’re talking with a farmer. They know that yesterday I might have been scooping out a bin of soybeans—actually out there doing the work,” said Neal Bredehoeft (Missouri/2004-05). “They know the people they're talking to are the ones who will have to live with the legislation they pass. I think that has a profound impact.”
“Policymakers know that, when you go home, that’s one vote they’ve either lost or gained—and likely more than one because you’ll talk with your fellow farmers about what happened on the Hill,” said Marc Curtis (Mississippi/1999-2000).
According to Wade Cowan (Texas/ 2014-15), ASA makes that critical connection between the farmer and the policymaker by being a grassroots organization. “The biggest thing a soybean farmer can do is get involved. Your voice and your ideas are valuable. Let's transfer those ideas and comments from the coffeeshop, the tractor and the combine to folks in government whose decisions affect our future.”
ASA President Gary Riedel in conversation with a soybean supporter. Circa 1992.
Traveling to meet in person with key decision makers is part and parcel of being an ASA farmer-leader—and that means sometime taking valuable time away from the farm, even when you’re not always sure what the return will be.
“When I left my house in the morning and went out on the farm, I always had a 95% idea of what I was going to accomplish that day,” said Gary Riedel (Missouri/1991-92). “When I went to Washington, D.C., I had about a 5% idea of what was going to get done.”
Case in point: One spring morning, Riedel parked his planter and caught an early flight to D.C. to testify on the Farm Bill. When he arrived, there were only two legislators in the hearing room. Two. “But I still took the opportunity to tell them what they needed to be doing for America’s soybean farmers in the next Farm Bill,” he said.
Representing soybean farmers as ASA president goes well beyond the halls of Congress. It was during John Heisdorffer’s term (Iowa/2017-18) that the trade war between China and the U.S. flared up. “I did around 240 media appearances that year talking about the impact of trade wars and tariffs on the profitability of soybean farmers,” he said.
Over the years, ASA has also worked beyond the borders of the U.S. to nurture global demand for soybeans. In fact, when ASA opened an office in Japan in 1956, it was the first commodity association to work with the Foreign Agricultural Service to establish a physical presence overseas. Since then, ASA has created and sustained critical and profitable connections around the globe, growing the export market for U.S. soybeans to its current level of nearly 2 billion bushels.
Richard Ostlie (North Dakota/2006-07) was on an ASA-sponsored mission to Japan which, at the time, was buying 75% of its soybeans from the United States. Always tough negotiators, the Japanese contingent was pointing out their concerns about small beans and foreign matter in U.S. soybean shipments. Ostlie interrupted the presenter and point-blank asked, “What can I do to continue to supply 75% or more of your soybeans?” The buyer stopped and pointed his finger at Ostlie: “Nobody has ever been here from South America and asked me that question,” he said. “I will keep buying my soybeans from you [the U.S.] because you are here. We may not always agree, but we know you want to bring us the best possible product you can.”
“The memory of that moment has never left me,” Ostlie said.
John Long (South Carolina/1995-96) was ASA president when Roundup Ready soybeans entered the market and caused concern among key global customers, especially in Europe, which at the time was the top export market for U.S. soybeans. Long and other ASA leaders traveled there to help inform decision makers about the research behind and safety of the new technology and urge them to approve it. “They didn’t even have a protocol in place for approval of biotechnology, so we had some very interesting conversations,” he said.
ASA President Charles Hamon (seated at table, far right) participating in a meeting at the White House with President Ronald Reagan to talk about soybean issues. Circa 1982.
On at least one day, those conversations took place in three different countries. “On one trip, we had breakfast in Paris, lunch in Rome and dinner in Madrid,” Long recalled. “It was definitely a whirlwind trip all based on the schedules of the ministers and officials we needed to meet with face to face.”
Things don’t always go as planned, as Charles Hamon (Kansas/1981-82) can attest. ASA was working to open an office in China to serve that important export market. In that time before laptop computers, ASA had received approval from Chinese officials to take typewriters overseas with them. But when they arrived, there ended up being a catch. “When we got there, they wouldn’t let us put ribbons in the typewriters, so we couldn’t even use them,” Hamon said.
A significant shift in ASA’s strategic direction occurred during Ron Moore’s (Illinois/2016-17) term as president. ASA made fundamental structural adjustments to provide even more focus on policy, advocacy and leadership development, while giving all its state affiliates sole discretion over their membership structure and management. This shift allowed ASA to redirect resources into even more robust policy initiatives.
“ASA is the national organization representing soybean farmers. That’s what we should be doing—going to D.C. and talking to the regulators and Congress about the impact they have on soybean farmers out in the countryside,” Moore said.
“If you’ve got the wrong policy, it’s going to destroy you,” said James Lee Adams (Georgia/1988-89). “You have to have somebody who stands up and points out the risks that soybean farmers take with their money, their land and their livelihood—and protects them. I don’t know any organization that does that as well as ASA.”
During his term as ASA president, Bart Ruth (Nebraska/2001-02) saw several huge wins for the soybean industry from the passage of “Fast Track” Trade Promotion Authority to the Renewable Fuels Energy Security Act. “If you look at the success that ASA has had in the policy arena over the past century, I think it's unrivaled across the industry,” he said. “We've had great representation. We've had great leadership. And, all of those things have put dollars in the pocket of American soybean farmers.”
To kick-start the biodiesel industry in the early 2000s, ASA worked to get the federal government to adopt a tax incentive for renewable fuel made with soybean oil. But repeated efforts by ASA’s contracted lobbyists to get a meeting to discuss this initiative with lawmakers were getting nowhere.
John Hoffman (Iowa/2007-08) was in line to be ASA president in a few years. But being from Iowa, he had a personal relationship with Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA).
One day, Hoffman simply took it upon himself to call the Senator’s office—and 30 minutes later, Senator Grassley called back to hear what John had to say. “Within two hours, the chief of staff of the committee called me from an airport and three days later we had a meeting set up in D.C. to start talking about a biodiesel incentive,” Hoffman recalls.
Over the next few months, ASA continued to shepherd the tax incentive through its legislative journey. But all was nearly lost in the eleventh hour.
Late on a Friday in 2004, Ron Heck (Iowa/2003-04) received a call from ASA’s Washington, D.C., staff with bad news. Senator Grassley’s staff had just informed ASA that the proposed first-ever biodiesel tax incentive was not going to be included in the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 bill going to the Senate that following Monday. Since Heck was from Iowa—Sen. Grassley’s home state—the only last-gasp hope was to buttonhole the Senator over the weekend and attempt a Hail Mary to save the incentive.
“We found out that he was in the state, meeting with other constituents, and three of us went to that event,” Heck said. “We told the Senator we needed five minutes alone with him to talk about the critical importance of the tax incentive to soybean farmers.” On Monday, Sen. Grassley return to D.C., overruled his staff and inserted the biodiesel tax credit into the bill.
“We have a four-billion-gallon-a-year biodiesel industry because ASA was in a position to inform me that I needed to go talk to one particular senator on one particular day. You don't know when those days or when those calls are going to be there. You have to have the organization in place,” Heck said. “That's the power of ASA.”
The food grade oil marketplace is incredibly competitive—and that competition got very ugly and very public in the early 1990s. In the end, ASA went the extra mile—several thousand miles, actually—to come to a compromise with its rivals.
In an effort to displace tropical oils in the U.S. foodservice and food processing industries, ASA had funded a hard-hitting consumer education effort entitled “Tropical Facts” in which they pointed out the high cholesterol dangers of coconut and palm oils, which were being widely used, especially in the fast food industry.
In response, Malaysian tropical oil producers, who depended on exports to the U.S., mounted a retaliatory campaign claiming that soybean oil was unhealthy because it was hydrogenated.
“Farmers loved the ASA campaign, but it was self-defeating,” said James Lee Adams (Georgia/1988-89). “We were hurting the industry as a whole and destroying both markets in the process, so we needed to figure out a way to call a truce.”
Unbeknownst to but a handful of ASA leaders who participated, a face-to-face meeting was set up with Malaysian food oil representatives in Honolulu, Hawaii, in August 1988. “I got on a plane in Camilla, Georgia, around 5 p.m. Friday and arrived in Hawaii at 2 a.m. local time Saturday. We met from 8 a.m. until about 5 p.m. and finally worked out an agreement by which we would all back off, keep our mouths shut and try not to hurt each other,” Adams said. “We never put it in writing. We just shook hands on it.”
Adams left Hawaii immediately after and landed back in Camilla early Sunday morning, about 36 hours after he left. “Those of us involved at ASA never said much about the incident but we got the rhetoric tamped down by making a good-faith effort to meet in the middle with our competition,” he said.
ASA has been at the table for 18 different federal Farm Bills—each one since the first in 1933. In addition,
ASA has served as the voice for U.S. soybean farmers in a wide range of policy initiatives over the First Soy Century. Here are just a few examples from the hundreds of policy efforts ASA has worked on over the past 100 years:
ASA’s policy work on behalf of U.S. soybean farmers is never-ending. Stay connected with ASA by visiting soygrowers.com.