National Corn Growers Association Chief Retiring — DTN

    Rick Tolman, retiring chief executive officer of the National Corn Growers Association, has dealt with some serious issues in his 14 years at the helm of one of the nation’s most influential farm groups. He’s addressed the ethanol blend wall, public campaigns against genetically engineered crops, trade barriers and the ongoing debate over food versus fuel, to name a few.

    In the midst of all the seriousness, though, Tolman has maintained a sense of humor.

    In one presentation from 2007, Tolman illustrated the market challenges ethanol faced by showing a photo of a dog sitting on a cat (the dog representing the oil industry, of course), and another of a large black goat standing on the branch of a skinny tree. Maybe you won’t find Tolman on any late-night talk shows firing off the top 10 reasons he’s bullish on U.S. agriculture, yet he has remained upbeat while the rest of farm country rides a rollercoaster of highs and lows.

    Even as he prepares to step away from his post in September, Tolman said that, more than ever, he’s optimistic about the future of U.S. agriculture. It’s precisely the professional reason he’s stepping aside: He believes new ideas are needed to lead agriculture into the coming decades.

    “I have a long-held principle not to stay too long,” Tolman said. “I promised my wife I would stay home. I’ve had a couple of health issues. There’s not a whole lot of Sundays left. You’re on call 24-7. It’s a job, but you want to have fun. I like to have fun and be laughing every day.”

    Don Borgman, owner of D&C Farms, LLC based in Kansas City, Mo., a colleague of Tolman’s, said Tolman’s sense of humor has been an important leadership tool. During a recent phone meeting, Borgman said, as Tolman was introduced to speak, one of the board members forgot to mute their phone, allowing everyone to hear a conversation on another line — “Hi, how are you?” Awkward silence ensued when the board chairman reminded callers to focus on the agenda.

    Tolman broke the ice, “I’m doing just fine. Thanks for asking,” he replied.

    Colleagues say Tolman has a unique ability to build bridges within agriculture that may have seemed off limits. He is credited with helping to bring American ethanol to NASCAR, the Corn Farmers Coalition to the walls of the D.C. Metro, helped open doors to a joint office of the NCGA and U.S. Grains Council in Washington, D.C., and has been instrumental in fostering confidence in the NCGA leadership and state and local members.

    “He has been in the situation to call it like it is when agriculture and, more specifically, the corn ethanol industry was taking it on the chin for high corn prices,” said Don Hutchens, executive director of the Nebraska Corn Board. “His communication skills and team building has moved the NCGA to new ranks in commodity leadership. He does it with a unconventional mode of presentation that lets you know he will be there right beside you when it gets tough, and he is a humble leader that makes you proud of how he manages the enter workings of a commodity organization that answers to so many.”


    Borgman said Tolman has become an outspoken leader for a much broader ag industry. For instance, Tolman was one of the handful of key leaders who launched the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance to focus on agriculture’s common interests.

    “While Rick has done a whale of a job for corn, he’s also a consummate advocate for all of agriculture,” Borgman said. “At a time when outside interests were trying to drive a wedge between some of the ag sectors, Rick’s response wasn’t to just to play defense. When the rest of us are focused on problems, Rick perceives opportunities and implements thoughtful efforts to make things better.”

    Illinois farmer and NCGA President Garry Niemeyer said he believes Tolman will be remembered as a pioneer. For example, Tolman’s vision led to the development of an NCGA strategy to point the way for the corn industry to develop the Renewable Fuel Standard — before ethanol was big.

    “That vision has almost been impeccable when you consider it was proposed and developed more than seven years ago,” Niemeyer said.

    Mark Lambert, senior communications manager for NCGA, has worked with Tolman dating back to their days at the USGC. Lambert said the next CEO will have big shoes to fill.

    “If you developed a list of key attributes for great leaders, he would have most of them,” Lambert said. “If I had to single out his biggest strengths, I would have to focus on his ability to conciliate and build consensus in an organization and an industry that is changing rapidly and is extremely diverse. It is not a job for the weak minded, faint of heart, or the humorless, and most days he makes it look darned easy.”


    Though agriculture is coming off perhaps its best decade in history, Tolman said he’ll leave his post at a time when much work remains. Agriculture still has to find ways to bridge the gap between farmers and consumers, he said.

    “All of us eat every day, but there’s a wide gulf between what happens on the farm and the rest of the world,” Tolman said. “I’m hoping the next CEO will bridge the gap between farmers and consumers. What we need to do is have farmers realize they are no longer just raising a crop. Consumers and policymakers need farmer voices in the discussion. Consumers need to know how food is safe. Farmers have the right to use tools and practices.”

    Tolman said he has been struck by the lack of farmer voices in policy discussions and public debate across the country. The Clean Water Act rule and other regulations coming from EPA in recent years, he said, are an example of how farmers aren’t well represented in policymaking.

    “I don’t think there’s an insider’s plot,” Tolman said, but rather the rule illustrates a need to get more EPA people visiting farms to see how the industry works.

    The misunderstanding the general public has about “what we do in agriculture” and in particular when it comes to ethanol, Tolman said, is one of the biggest frustrations he faced during his tenure at NCGA.

    “It’s a real shame the general media perpetuated myths,” he said. “I think we’re in the same battle with biotech and the labeling of foods. A lot of the public is scared. It’s hard to figure out what is true and what’s perception. There are groups that exist to create fear and to create money — NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and environmentalists. They scare you.”


    Tolman said China will continue to cast a “big shadow” across the soybean market and “will hit” the corn industry as well, long after he leaves NCGA. When it comes to agriculture’s defense of the RFS, Tolman said he believes the oil industry will continue to stop at nothing to keep biofuels markets from expanding.

    “We’re kind of in a David/Goliath battle,” he said. “For them, this is a life-or-death business. I think they have made it a line in the sand, and our challenge is we don’t have resources in agriculture to fight it.”

    The explosion of the ethanol industry starting at the turn of the century came at a time when Tolman’s tenure at NCGA was just beginning and his main area of focus was rural development.

    “With the RFS, we’ve seen that turn all around — just from the ethanol plants built,” he said. “We have a tremendous boom in young people who have come back to the farm. If we reduce the RFS, we’ll slide back into these situations.”

    Tolman said farmers will have to continue to look at ways to be more productive long-term, while continuing to conserve the soil and improve yields.

    “When I listen to industry folks, they feel we have just scratched the surface,” Tolman said.

    “I think the future is very bright.”

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