Memories Made, Memories Shared

Jul 20, 2020

By Dave Buchholz • From Summer 2020 American Soybean Magazine

As ASA reflects on its First Soy Century, it makes sense to highlight the accomplishments, achievements and contributions of the dedicated soybean farmers who have led the association over the decades.

At the same time, ASA has had a powerful and positive impact on the families of those leaders and the ASA staff who have had the privilege of working with the association and its farmer-leaders.

In this story, members of the broader ASA “family” share amusing anecdotes, inspiring stories, and their personal history with the American Soybean Association—and in the process, these friends of ASA illustrate that ASA is not just about policy. It’s also about developing lasting relationships and creating memories that truly span a lifetime.

Growing up in the ASA Family

Sarah Adams was 9 years old the year her father James Lee Adams was ASA president [1988-89/Georgia], so she spent much of her early childhood as a member of the ASA “family.” Sarah has especially fond memories of  attending the annual SOYBEAN EXPO convention with her parents. The convention offered a complete supervised program for young people who were grouped by age for a wide range of activities.

“I had a blast—and I thought all kids experienced the same thing I did,” Sarah recalled. “But I found out that wasn’t the case when I went back to school in the fall,” she recalled.

Sarah’s memories include visits to Pike’s Peak, the U.S. Air Force Academy, the St. Louis Arch, and a brief encounter with at least one well-known athlete. “In St. Louis, I got to sit in Pete Rose’s lap. That was, of course before his ‘downfall,’” she said.

Sarah recalls accompanying her parents one evening during the EXPO’s round of state receptions. “Dad told me to be polite and snack on something at every event we attended. I figured it would be maybe two or three, but it was more like thirty,” Sarah said. “They had the same menu at each one, so I ended up getting very full and not feeling very well.”

“Growing up in the ASA family gave me experiences I would have never had available around our hometown,” she said. “I distinctly remember going to an art museum in St. Louis that must have made an impression, because I’m now involved in art and design as a career.”

As young boys, Geoff (left) Ruth and his brother Brent (right) don cowboy outfits for a photo opportunity in the Zeneca trade show booth at the 1994 SOYBEAN EXPO in Kansas City. Photo Credit: Lynne Ruth

Geoff Ruth’s father Bart was also ASA president [2001-02/Nebraska]. Geoff’s memories of attending SOYBEAN EXPO sound much like Sarah’s. “It was a blast,” he said. “As dad went to meetings, we would go to the childcare center and hang out with kids our same age from all over the country whose dads were doing the same thing. I remember the great opportunities it created for my brother and me to travel around the country and meet a lot of really great people.”

Geoff continued to accompany his parents after ASA joined with the National Corn Growers Association to create the Commodity Classic convention and trade show—and the memorable moments continued.

“The year Dad was ASA president Commodity Classic was held in Nashville, and we were staying in a very nice suite. I remember waking up in the middle of the night to find four or five strange people wandering around in our hotel room. It turns out they had to clean and restock the room overnight in order to have it ready for the meetings and receptions that started early the next morning,” he said.

When the rest of the Ruth family headed to Nashville that year, Geoff stayed behind a few days to play in the district basketball championships. “We won the game to qualify for the state tournament that night. The next morning, I got up at 2:30 to get to the airport to catch a flight to Nashville,” he said. “It was my first time flying alone and I made it to Nashville, caught a cab and made it to the convention center just in time for the ASA awards banquet.”

Geoff inherited his father’s penchant for service. He serves on the Nebraska State FFA Committee and has served 10 years on the local school board. He was also president of the Nebraska Soybean Association. “I’m super proud of what Dad has accomplished, and it drives me to do some of those same things,” he said.

Geoff Ruth (left) was serving as president of the Nebraska Soybean Association (NSA) here in 2012, when he presented ASA President Steve Wellman from Syracuse, Neb., with NSA’s Soy Promoter Award. Photo Credit: Nebraska Soybean Association

So, might Geoff follow in his father’s footsteps as ASA president? “I hope someday I have the opportunity to sit down at the kitchen table and have that conversation with my kids,” Geoff said. “I’d say ‘Hey, look, here’s something I think I can do for the soybean industry. Do you guys want to come along for the ride?’”

Generations of soybean leadership

Bill Dimond recalls meeting several ASA leaders over the years as he grew up in Illinois. His father Albert farmed land managed by Joe Johnson of Champaign, Illinois, who served as ASA president in 1943-44. “I can’t remember ever seeing Joe Johnson without a bowtie,” Bill said. “We have a photo my mother took of Joe standing in our soybean field, and sure enough, he has on that bowtie.”

A few years later, Albert Dimond was talking in front of hundreds of soybean farmers and, as it turns out, beginning his journey to the top of ASA leadership himself. “Dad made his first appearance at an ASA ‘EXPO’ in 1950, but he wasn’t on the ASA board. He was invited to talk about why farmers should grow soybeans,” Bill said. “I’m sure his connection with Joe Johnson prompted that invitation.”

There was no state soybean association in Illinois in the early 1950s when Albert was elected to the ASA board in 1952. About that same time, he was working to repeal an Illinois state tax on margarine, which was a significant market for soybean oil. “I think his involvement in that issue here in Illinois led to him becoming an ASA director,” Bill said.

Albert was president during a pivotal time in ASA’s push into the Japanese market. The Japanese-American Soybean Institute was established in 1956, essentially establishing a trade promotion office for ASA in Japan. “While he didn’t graduate from college, Dad was always interested in things beyond the farm, beyond the county and beyond the state,” Bill recalled. “For example, he created a grain company that pioneered the selling of soybeans by specification instead of grade with an emphasis on export markets. Today we might call those identity-preserved beans.”

Bill was working on the family farm when his father became ASA president in 1955. While he eventually joined ASA, Bill was not active in the association in terms of leadership. He continued to farm until 1971, however, and Bill’s career path sustained the family tradition of promoting soybeans; he joined Asgrow Seed Company, eventually becoming soybean product manager for the company. “We were very involved in the ASA SOYBEAN EXPO for several years, and Asgrow received the Agribusiness Program Award from ASA in 1984,” he said.

In addition to Joe Johnson, Bill remembers meeting many ASA presidents, including Jake Hartz, Jr., Ersel Walley, Howard Roach, Chester Biddle, John Sawyer and Carl Simcox. He also knew George Strayer, the first executive secretary of ASA. “ASA became an important part of Dad’s life,” Bill added.

ASA Executive Secretary-Treasurer George Strayer, President Jake Hartz, Jr., and Vice President Albert Dimond confer during ASA’s 1954 annual convention. Dimond became ASA president in 1955.

You can’t write a history of soybeans in Arkansas without seeing the Hartz name show up somewhere.

Rice had been introduced into Arkansas in the early 1900s, and by the 1920s, yields were starting to suffer due to nutrient depletion in the soil. Jacob Hartz, Sr., and A.R. Thorell were partners in an International Harvester dealership in Stuttgart, Arkansas, and saw their farmer customers struggling with decreasing rice production. As a possible solution, Hartz and Thorell were the first to bring soybeans to Arkansas in 1924 when they purchased 10 bushels of Laredo soybeans from a farmer in Illinois.

Jacob soon connected with Heartsill Banks, who was in charge of the Rice Branch Experiment Station in Stuttgart. “My grandfather and Heartsill Banks felt there needed to be something planted in conjunction with rice or in a rotation with rice that would help the soil fertility,” said Doug Hartz, Jacob’s grandson. “Soybeans enrich the soil with nitrogen, so it seemed like a promising crop to help Arkansas farmers.”

Together, Hartz and Banks became known as the “soybean twins” as they traveled a 50-mile radius to promote this new crop. Banks would speak to the technical aspects while Hartz talked about the practical considerations of growing soybeans.

Jacob Hartz, Sr., eventually established Hartz Seed Co., which became one of the nation’s leaders in soybean seed research. Jacob died in 1963, and his sons Jake and Marion (Doug’s father) continued to build the company through proprietary soybean breeding, which led to several soybean varieties being released into the marketplace. The company was eventually purchased by Monsanto in 1983.

Doug’s uncle Jake became very involved with the American Soybean Association, eventually rising to the position of ASA president in 1953-55.

Former ASA director Doug Hartz, Stuttgart, Ark., holds the framed shadowbox that displays the ASA Meritorious Service medals presented to his grandfather, Jacob Hartz, Sr., in 1949 and his uncle, Jake Hartz, Jr., in 1965. Photo Credit: Doug Hartz

While Doug’s grandfather never served in a leadership capacity with the American Soybean Association, Jacob Hartz, Sr., was recognized by ASA with its highest honor, the award for Outstanding Achievement in the Soybean Industry.

“My grandfather received the award in 1949, and my uncle Jake received the same award in 1965,” Doug said. “I have both of those medals in a framed shadowbox in my office.”

Doug became the third generation of the Hartz family to become engaged in the soybean industry. He served on the ASA board from 1996 to 2005 and served on the Public Affairs Committee during his entire term on the board.

Doug looks back with pride at his family’s leadership in the U.S. soybean industry. “It’s pretty awesome to think that my grandfather played such a significant role in the introduction of such a versatile crop to this part of the country,” he said.

Making moves that mattered

In 1976, Ken Bader was serving as vice chancellor of student affairs at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, with a career goal of eventually becoming a university president.

Then the headhunter called.

“He asked if I’d be interested in leading a small, midwestern agriculture organization with international programs,” Bader said. “I told him I was very happy where I was but would be interested in learning more. That started the ball rolling to me becoming executive director of the American Soybean Association.”

But the ball started out slowly.

ASA CEO Ken Bader (standing) addresses attendees at a Tennessee Soybean Association meeting.

Before agreeing to an interview, Bader and his wife decided to drive to Hudson, Iowa, the small rural community where ASA was headquartered in a cramped basement office. “As we drove back into Nebraska on our return from Hudson, we saw the sign that said ‘Nebraska: The Good Life,” and I decided right then I was not interested in the ASA job,” he said.

But the headhunter persisted and set up a meeting in Omaha with Bader and top ASA leadership, Seymour Johnson from Mississippi and Jerry Michaelson from Minnesota. “My wife and I enjoyed a delightful dinner with them, and they presented their offer,” he recalls. “After nailing down some details, I accepted the position.”

Bader was intrigued by the quality of the ASA leaders who interviewed him and their vision for ASA. “Seymour was a farmer with a business degree from Harvard and Jerry was a very successful farmer in his own right,” he said. “They instilled confidence in me that they were truly wanting to move the association to a new level.”

Bader’s first challenge was daunting: Assessing the viability of keeping the ASA offices in their longtime, original Hudson, Iowa, location. Memphis, Indianapolis, and Louisville were among the new locations considered. Eventually St. Louis was selected, but the move didn’t come without controversy. “Iowa was the top soybean-producing state in the country, so there was significant pressure to remain in Iowa. Even the governor of Iowa got involved,” he said.

Under Bader’s leadership, ASA significantly expanded its international footprint. “At the time I joined, we had two offices overseas in Japan and Belgium. That number grew to 12 while I was with the organization, including a Moscow location,” he said. “We also established a nursery facility in Central America to conduct soybean research in the winter months. We conducted feeding trials in Southeast Asia. It was an exciting time.”

“The Gold That Grows” was a major theme of ASA marketing efforts in Bader’s day. “I think we were able to show a connection between the efforts we were making in market development and research and the profit opportunities for U.S. soybean farmers.”

Bader also felt that ASA needed to increase its visibility in Washington, D.C. “We opened an office in D.C. and hired a staff of three to stay on top of policy developments affecting U.S. soybean farmers.”

The ASA and Lexone (now Corteva Agriscience) Young Leader Program was also launched on Bader’s watch. “It was important to have young farmers who could carry the ASA flag and be prepared to participate in a national organizational leadership role,” he said. “We wanted to get young farmers interested in what their future might be relative to producing soybeans in the U.S.”

As state soybean checkoffs expanded, the states committed a portion of their funds to ASA. “That really helped stabilize the financial position of ASA,” he said. “When I joined ASA, we had a budget of around $750,000. By the time I left in 1992, we were around $75 million including the USDA contribution through the Foreign Agricultural Service.”

Bader was also involved in the early discussions regarding a national soybean checkoff. “It was important to have all states participate in funding the development of the soybean industry,” he said. “The challenges came in terms of how funds would be managed and how the creation of a checkoff would affect programs that had, up until then, been the sole responsibility of ASA. Those discussions in terms of structure were still underway when I left in 1992.”

“Those were very fond years of my professional life,” Bader said. “I think back with a lot of satisfaction of my work with the soybean farmers of America and an organization that was really forward thinking. I had the good fortune of having a host of great soybean leaders who were willing to give up time on their farms to do important work for ASA.”

ASA CEO Steve Censky (left) and Chairman Rob Joslin discuss a resolution during the association’s 2011 Voting Delegates Session.

Steve Censky agrees with that sentiment. Starting in 1994, he was ASA’s executive director of international marketing for two years, then chief executive officer of ASA from 1996 until 2017 when he left to accept the position of deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Due to federal ethics standards, Censky could not have business-related conversations with ASA directors or staff for a period of two years once he left for USDA. “That was tough after spending 23 years with the association and not being able to reach out to people with whom I had close relationships and friendships for so long,” he said.

“You know your role as a staff person, but you also feel a part of a larger family. My wife has commented on that as well. That's one of the things that she misses—is feeling part of that family together. It’s something we really enjoyed,” Censky said. “We attended our first Commodity Classic when my wife was pregnant with our first child, and our girls grew up always attending Commodity Classic, all of the way through their 20s. It really was a great opportunity.”

Censky sees an important role for ASA as world population approaches 10 billion, requiring farmers to grow more food and do so with reduced environmental impact. “I think it calls for innovative solutions; it calls for innovation in how farmers produce. I think ASA, along with other organizations, will be at the forefront of that,” he said.

Censky underscored the importance of a soybean organization focused on policy. “Whether it be on expanding trade or making sure farmers are able to manage their risks, whether they're able to expand domestic marketing opportunities and find new uses for their product—those key issues remain the same. The specifics have changed over time, but the need for the American Soybean Association still remains.”

Censky reflected on the 100-year anniversary celebration of the American Soybean Association. “The fact that it's still flourishing today is a compliment to the dedication of the farmer-leaders and the staff at both the state and national levels, but also to being able to change over time and set new priorities and be dynamic for 100 years,” he said. “ASA is not a new organization, but it needs to continually act young and make sure the organization is addressing the needs of growers today.”