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VIEW FROM THE TOP
NCGA TAKES ON A BIGGER ROLE
Editor's Note: Rick Tolman is in his fifth year as the CEO of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA).

AM: Tell us about your background and key career milestones that brought you to this NCGA leadership role.

RT: I was raised in Fresno, Calif., and worked summers on my grandparents' cow/calf operation in southern Idaho. I studied agricultural economics at Brigham Young University and then attended graduate school and completed a master's degree in agricultural economics at Purdue University -- both degrees with an emphasis in agricultural marketing.

My first work experience was in the farm equipment industry with the Gehl Company and later with International Harvester (IH). One of my first career milestones was working in a very small new venture group at IH called the Advanced Harvesting Systems Group. Our mission was to look at new harvesting technology.

From IH, I joined the U.S. Grains Council in Washington, D.C., where I worked for 18 years, starting out as the director of Membership and Communications and ending as the executive director for International Operations.

AM: If you had to write a couple of headlines about NCGA during your first five years, what would they be?

RT: The biggest would be our most recent success -- "NCGA Leads the Way to a 7.5-Billion-Gallon RFS." This reflects the 7.5-billion-gallon renewable fuels standard that was just passed in the energy bill late this summer. This single piece of legislation guarantees that the ethanol industry will grow and at least double between now and 2012. This is a fantastic opportunity for U.S. corn producers.

A second headline could read: "NCGA Structure Successfully Empowers Grower Leaders." When I joined NCGA, the association had just set up a sweeping new structure designed to make us more nimble and responsive. My job has been to implement it and work out the kinks. Today we have a much smaller board and more active teams and committees with budget and project accountability. This structure works because of great grower leaders and a top-notch staff team. Some may disagree, but I believe NCGA has become one of the most, if not the most, powerful, influential and effective commodity organizations over the past three years. We have a tremendous record of success and accomplishment.

AM: What are the current top mandates for NCGA ? Have you seen these shift since you've been here?

RT: The U.S. is the world champion of corn production. We have an over 65 percent share of world trade in corn, and most importantly, we have developed a rapidly growing domestic market as well. We are in a very different situation than other U.S. crops. This is due partly to the comparative advantage the U.S. has in corn production and partly to wise past decisions made by our leadership.

We have embraced biotechnology as a tool for farmer productivity and have developed rational policies to keep market access. We are investing in value-added, knowing that not all of our producers can continue to thrive in a commodity marketplace. Ethanol and other new uses allow our farmers to move up the value chain and diversify their sources of income.

The biggest shift in mandate is that it is not enough to just keep our position as the world's best producer of corn. Our mandate is to create opportunities for our members to be profitable. We have a strong directive to pursue business development and investment opportunities for our membership.

AM: Any changes or shifts in membership totals or membership make-up?

RT: We are both a membership organization and a federation of state organizations. Our dues-paying membership has grown slightly over each of the past five years and now is approximately 33,000. The growth has been modest, but we are pleased as many other groups have lost membership over the same time period. Almost more important is our federation. It has shown steady growth. We now have 26 state associations and 25 state checkoff entities that are affiliated with NCGA. Our newest member is the Alabama Soybean and Corn Association.

AM: From NCGA's perspective, what are the critical components that need to be addressed in the upcoming "farm bill"?

RT: This will be a very interesting farm bill. Some pundits look for radical change driven by the World Trade Organization, the U.S. budget situation and more active involvement from groups that are ancillary to production agriculture.

We are actively involving ourselves at the grassroots level in the farm bill listening sessions. We are also doing some of our own listening sessions. Our policies will come from our county-level organizations up to the state level and then finally to the national level in our Corn Congress sessions next February and July. I think that you can expect to see a push for effective risk management tools and an effective safety net, expanded market access, increased emphasis on rural economic development and sound conservation programs.

AM: Same for WTO and the Doha round of talks.

RT: NCGA and all of U.S. agriculture have much invested in this round of talks. We generally support the U.S. position of elimination of export subsidies, reduction in trade-distorting domestic support and rapid expansion of market access. We support trade in general and strongly support expanded trade of value-added and value-enhanced products.

AM: NCGA has taken a proactive role in initiating and shaping dialogue regarding the changing structure of agriculture and the resulting implications and alternatives for producers and the rural ag economy as a whole. This is a pretty high-level, progressive position to take. What prompted it and what is hoped to be accomplished?

RT: You are referencing the report "Taking Ownership of Grain Belt Agriculture," published earlier this year. While it has not been fully adopted as NCGA policy, it gives a clear glimpse of how our mandate is changing and of the visionary nature of our farmer leadership.

Our leaders remain concerned that while we have been very successful in commodity production of corn -- since 1931 the acres planted to corn in the U.S. have dropped 26 percent while yield per acre has increased 553 percent -- this productivity has influenced the trend of larger farms and fewer farmers. Not all farmers will be able to stay in business as these trends continue. We are concerned about the impact this has on rural communities. Long term, our goal is to maintain our commodity production, for those that are best at doing that, in addition to helping others move up the value chain and diversify their income and take equity positions in the businesses they supply.

We see that by creating ownership opportunities we can stimulate job growth in local economies, create local tax revenue and stimulate local infrastructure, while giving farmers more income opportunities and more stability in their income. We are strong believers in bio-refineries and the "carbohydrate economy" concepts. There are and will be many new products and business opportunities coming from U.S. agriculture, and we want farmers to be on the ground floor of those -- as partners and not just suppliers of a commodity.

We are looking at the recommendations that came out of the report and deciding how we can implement those. We are looking at proposing possible changes in tax law, business ownership structure and co-op law that would enhance opportunities for farmer ownership. We intend for the report to be a stimulus for thinking but also a blueprint for tangible action and policy change.

AM: Talk about the importance of the relationship between NCGA and the agribusiness industry sector.

RT: Agribusiness is our partner. We want strong working and mutually beneficial relationships based on shared respect and trust. We have worked to develop a relationship of mutual trust and respect, and we work very hard to cultivate that relationship. There is much that agribusiness can do to enhance our industry that we cannot do on our own. This includes things like investment in research and technology, helping to promote U.S. agriculture and to promote our products and partnering with us in those efforts.

We take great pride that in most cases corn is the future investment focus for agribusiness. The pipeline of new products and services and equipment targeted at corn is full and will help keep us at the top in corn production. In turn, I think agribusiness appreciates and respects that NCGA has adopted policies and principles that encourage investment in the corn sector.

One of our biggest efforts this coming year will be what we are calling "Growing America's Future." This is an effort to reestablish in the mind of the general public that U.S. agriculture is one of our strategic national assets and that agriculture can be a solution to many of the challenges the U.S. faces. This is in contrast to much of what they hear now.

We have targeted four areas that agriculture is and can be a partial solution to:
1. Renewable Energy
2. Health and Nutrition
3. Renewable Products
4. Environment

We hope agribusiness will help share this message and appropriately partner with us and other groups to deliver this message. As examples, we are very pleased to partner on programs such as the public television series "America's Heartland," sponsored by Monsanto and the American Farm Bureau, and the series of farm-friendly ads produced by ADM. AM


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