Editor’s Note: Rick Tolman was named executive vice president and chief executive officer of the National Corn Growers Association in September. He previously spent 18 years at the U.S. Grains Council in Washington, D.C., where he was executive director of international programs.
AM: What are the biggest issues facing your membership?
Tolman: We have five key issues, starting with the Farm Bill. We’ve recently been in testimony before the House Agriculture Committee with a fairly innovative counter-cyclical proposal. The second is biotechnology. We’ve decided we need to become more proýctive on the integrity of our product. The third is transportation, focused on river transportation issues. The fourth is ethanol promotion. We see the opportunity during the next few months to do something with ethanol because of the high cost of gasoline. Right now, ethanol demand exceeds supply, and we foresee a tremendous increase in production. The fifth issue is what we are calling new uses, or new business development, including a handful of industrial chemical uses.
AM: How do you see the structure of the industry evolving during the next 10 years? What does that mean for the agribusinesses that serve farmers?
Tolman: We’re looking at a future where corn will be for a specific end-use application, whether feed use, human consumption, or export or industrial use. For example, Pioneer recently came out with a variety designed for ethanol production.
Our attitude is that agribusinesses are partners. They need to be involved in where we’re going and what’s happening. We are trying to get a corporate commitment from agribusinesses to encourage their employees to use ethanol and use company vehicles designed for ethanol, so they can help promote utilization of our products.
AM: What ramifications does consolidation in the livestock industry have for corn growers?
Tolman: Feed is still the biggest use of corn in the United States. Consolidation in the livestock reduces the number of options farmers have for marketing their product. But it allows us to tailor corn for a specific end use, such as pork or poultry production.
AM: What are some of the exciting new products to enhance corn utilization?
Tolman: One is polyols - a chemical that can be produced from corn and other products - that goes into antifreeze and other applications. We are finding that corn may have some competitive advantages over other sources. Then there’s 1-3-propane diol, a second-generation polymer similar to polylactic acid that can be used in any application where we now use polyester. The benefit is that it’s a renewable resource and biodegradable with similar strength and characteristics. The polylactic acid already has been commercialized, with a new Cargill-Dow plant being built at Blair, Neb. We hope eventually to have similar commercialization for the propane diol. A big application for all three of these is carpeting.
AM: From a public relations perspective, what did you learn from the StarLink corn situation?
Tolman: We’ve got to be a lot more proactive as an organization on the biotech issue. One thing we’ve done is open up a dialogue with the crop science companies. We’ve made a number of recommendations and even asked them not to bring certain products to market because we could foresee some problems. We also are continuing our "Know before you grow" campaign encouraging farmers to pick their hybrids knowing where they are going to send their product.
What I learned personally is that there is a lot of misinformation out there and sharing facts and accurate information will diffuse the situation. StarLink had the perception of a food-safety issue, but the facts are it was a regulatory issue, and people responded well to that.
I was part of a group that went to Japan to speak about this issue. One little fact I used that helped a lot was that our production of StarLink represented one quarter of 1 percent of total corn acreage. If you turn that around, 99.6 percent of our corn was not StarLink. Just getting the problem in perspective helped a lot. With the recent press announcement about StarLink seed, we can put a positive spin on it. It shows that the regulatory system is working because the seed was tested and pulled off the market before it got to farmers. AM