When the National Corn Growers Association reached a membership record of 37,160 in August 2011, it was clear to see to whom the credit ultimately should go.

“At the end of the day, the sure-fire way to get a member is for a current member to go and ask another grower,” says Matt Gibson, the Indiana Corn Growers chairman who headed NCGA’s membership committee, the Grower Services Action Team, for three years.

“Some people will respond to gimmicks, but we went away from that,” he explains, noting that NCGA membership is increasing even as the number of farmers in the United States continues to decrease.

Ask NCGA leaders what got them involved and the message is the same: another member asked them to join.

Leon Corzine, an Illinois farmer and NCGA president in 2006, has a typical story. “A good friend of mine was Illinois Department of Agriculture Director Joe Hampton. I knew him through 4-H and he suggested I look at getting involved with the corn growers. So I went to a meeting, and here is my neighbor sitting next to the governor. I was impressed. I thought it was a good organization of farmers representing farmers and I liked the fact that corn growers could focus on corn issues.”

Fred Yoder, an Ohio grower and NCGA president in 2003, tells a similar tale. “I was farming on my own and had a seed business and along with each sales call you get to talking with other farmers. Jim Mitchell was on the Ohio Corn Growers board but he was moving to county commissioner and he asked would I fill out his unexpired term on the corn board.”

“I had been involved with the Farm Bureau’s women’s programs, but I wanted to be at the table where you can achieve more,” says Pam Johnson of Iowa, NCGA’s current first vice president. “Then I got a call from former Iowa Corn Promotion Board chair Helen Inman about running for the Iowa corn board.”

“I was happy being a farmer and then in ’87 my neighbor said ‘you could make a difference if you got involved in some farm organizations,’” recounts 2012 NCGA president Garry Niemeyer from Illinois. “And I got involved and really began to see how organizations operate and what happens in government and why it matters to us farmers.”

Walter Goeppinger, the NCGA’s founder, set the pattern from the beginning when he recruited neighbors to help establish the organization in 1957. His goal was a farmer-driven group designed specifically to answer corn growers’ needs, which many members cite as their reason for involvement.

Throughout the organization’s history and across the NCGA’s 48 state organizations, farmer-to-farmer contacts continue to be the backbone of membership and leadership recruitment.

“That’s how we totally built membership in the early days,” says Iowa Corn Growers Association past director Warren Kemper, a southeast Iowa farmer. “We went door to door, just like a salesman, usually two of us at a time.”

Kemper himself was recruited that way: “NCGA president Jack Parsons (1983) went to a state meeting, and when he told me about it, it sounded like an organization that a farmer should belong to.”

In agriculture, where growers commonly turn to each other to share information, farmer-to-farmer recruiting has been a success for NCGA, building its membership numbers even as the number of U.S. corn farmers has dropped from almost two million to less than 350,000.

It’s not enough, however, to recruit members, says Gibson: “How you keep members is another question. You want to create a system so that if a member lapses, they know very quickly the benefits they’re losing.”

Over the 55 years since Goeppinger’s time, NCGA’s effort to meet members’ needs has led to a range of programs, many of which have become institutions in U.S. agriculture.

In 1965, NCGA’s National Corn Yield Contest began with just 20 entries and a winning tally of 218.9 bushels per acre. For members, the yield contest offers the chance to learn from (and compete with) their peers as they push production efforts to feed and fuel the world.

By 2011, the National Corn Yield Contest offered multiple entry categories for irrigated and non-irrigated farms and for conventional, ridge-till, and no-till/strip-till practices. The contest produced a record 8,431 entries, and a top yield of 429.0216 bushels per acre in the no-till/strip till irrigated category. Total entries have increased 18 percent since 2010 and 71 percent since 2007.

Another iconic NCGA program, the Corn Classic, evolved in the 1980s from an annual meeting into a broader grower opportunity combining educational programs, business meetings, farm show and an opportunity for corn farmers to meet. In 1996, the Corn Classic merged with the annual meeting of the American Soybean Association to become the Commodity Classic, bringing together corn and soybean growers, and their partners throughout the value chain. Commodity Classic added wheat growers in 2007 and grain sorghum producers in 2009. The convention and trade show now draws thousands of participants for a unique opportunity to work across commodity boundaries.

In an increasingly global market, NCGA information and education programs are another key benefit of membership.

“Most of our farmers today are very connected with e-mail and text messaging,” says Gibson. “We try to serve that with ‘News of the Day,’ our website, blogs and more. Once people join, there’s a lot of excitement that keeps them involved.”

Finally, strong membership numbers underpin NCGA’s growing effectiveness in the policy arena. In return, a powerful NCGA presence in policy debates is possibly the most important membership benefit of all.

That’s what Dee Vaughan, an NCGA past president (2004) from Texas, thinks.

“The biggest benefit corn growers get from NCGA would be its efficacy in Washington, DC, says Vaughan. “Over all, NCGA is much stronger today than in ’96 [when Vaughan joined]. NCGA was respected back then, but it has a lot more esteem today.”

Still, while the Classic, the yield contest, and policy successes are major contributors to NCGA’s membership success, many growers cite the opportunity to build friendships with farmers from other states as the greatest membership benefit of all.

“In NCGA, I got to network with farmers who grow corn in other states. One of best benefits of getting involved with NCGA is the chance to make friends all across the country and you can learn from each other,” says Yoder.

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