(Posted Wed. Feb 1st, 2012)

Farming ForwardFeb. 1:  When Walter Goeppinger founded the National Corn Growers Association, he wanted it to be a self-help tool corn producers could use to plan for their industry’s future.  Since 1957, his two priorities – grower control and focusing on the challenges of the future – have become ingrained, and the NCGA has demonstrated an ongoing capacity for strategic thinking and change, as seen with major structural reorganizations in 1977 and 1998.


“The fact that we made the change – I think it was truly a result of the membership of the Corn Growers,” says Ryland Utlaut, the Missourian who presided over NCGA’s 1998 restructuring.  “I think they were more forward-looking than some others.”


The same could be said of the 1977 reorganization, which created NCGA’s federation of state groups just as the first state corn checkoffs were being established.


While many agricultural checkoffs are governed by USDA-appointed boards, the corn checkoffs are all state-based, and almost all are governed by local growers elected by their fellow farmers.


The result today is a flexible structure of 28 state grower membership organizations and 23 state checkoffs that manage extensive state-specific programs, underpin NCGA’s broader national programs, and provide a conduit for moving grower concerns, funding, and proposals from local forums to the national level.


NCGA continued to evolve in the late 1970s and early 1980s, establishing standing committees, opening its first professional office, hiring Mike Hall as its first representative in Washington, D.C., moving its headquarters to St. Louis, and hiring Jeff Gain as its first CEO.


A major move in 1979 established the National Corn Development Foundation (NCDF) as a parallel national organization focused on research, market development, and related funding.


Such changes don’t come easily, and the 1998 reorganization was contentious, according to Utlaut.


“We were looking at $1.50 corn and we knew we had to do something,” he remembers.  “We were two organizations at the time – NCGA and NCDF – so our CEO Chris Wehrman along with the officers started talking about simplifying our structure. Traditions die hard, and it wasn’t unanimous with everyone, but we knew we needed to simplify and not be as expensive to run.”


With Wehrman’s guidance, NCGA initiated an industry discussion that created a vision for the corn industry, defined NCGA’s mission, and developed a strategic plan to position the organization as an integral part of the corn value chain.


“We looked at why don’t we put the two groups (NCGA and NCDF) together,” says Utlaut.  “It was a very radical change, and it created bumps and bruises, but after many sessions, we think we got fair representation for all the states.”


Fair representation was especially critical, since the reorganization also led to a new committee structure (the action teams), a large Corn Congress where all member states are represented, and the creation of a new governing board, the Corn Board, with just 15 elected positions.


To achieve those results, “You’ve got to look at what’s best for all of us,” says Utlaut.  As an example, he points to growers like Illinois’ Gene Youngquist for the efforts they made during the NCGA-NCDF consolidation.


“These kinds of people are the reason NCGA has earned the reputation it has,” he concludes.


Since 1998, NCGA grower leaders have continued to update the organization’s vision for the future.


Mark SchwiebertMark Schwiebert, an Ohio grower, served on a structure review committee in 2001 to look at the performance of the 1998 restructuring.


“It [the restructuring] didn’t sit on a shelf collecting dust,” says Schwiebert.  “We reviewed it for any modifications that needed to be made.  We looked at the action team structures and the revamping and asked ‘is this working?’”


Schwiebert went on to serve on NCGA’s Future Structures of Agriculture Task Force, an NCGA-led effort to look at the challenges and opportunities grain producers could face in the future.


“We didn’t think being complacent would get us where we wanted to get as farmers,” explains Schwiebert.  “The thinking was we wanted to have folks gain a larger vision and see the opportunities that might be out there for us if we were bold enough to step forward and take some leadership roles.”


The task force produced two reports – the first, Choices in the Evolution of Corn Belt Agriculture, setting the stage, and the second, Taking Ownership of Grain Belt Agriculture: How Producer Self-Reliance is Transforming Rural America, providing concrete examples.


“After the first report, many people wanted us to dig a little deeper, illustrate real world examples of how other organizations have done it (taken ownership),” says Schwiebert. 


“We put in some failed attempts too.  You have to look at the opportunities and, yes, there are risks, but knowing what’s out there gives you a chance.”


Like Utlaut, Schwiebert credits the corn growers membership itself for the organization’s focus on the future.


“I think that’s kind of reflective of many members who tend to be forward-thinking individuals,” he says. “They are willing to look at fresh approaches because what we’re doing now is so different than in the past.  That’s the lifeblood that has driven our organization forward over the years.”


Today, the NCGA and its members look to the future with a continuously evolving strategic plan whose mission is to create and increase opportunities for corn growers.


Gerald Tumbleson, an NCGA past president from Minnesota, captures the ongoing strength of grower leadership and a strategic focus on the future:  “One of the things that NCGA is so great about is it’s such a diverse area.  There are so many ways we raise corn and different technologies to use it, and it’s exciting as you work to adjust to this.  There’s a difference in how we approach things, but there’s always the same end game to create opportunities for corn farmers.”


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