Corn Grower in Chief

Rick Tolman examines stereotypes, praises NASCAR as industry spokespeople and pushes for a 300-bushel national yield average, as head of the National Corn Growers Association.
By Tim Portz | September 23, 2013

In late July, membership of the 56-year-old National Corn Growers Association topped 40,000, strong evidence of the organization’s relevance. Leading this enormous group of producers is CEO Rick Tolman. With corn yields trending upward, he doesn’t hesitate to point to the ethanol industry as a key driver in the innovation, growth and discovery occurring in corn production and conversion.

You and the NCGA do an incredible job educating the public about conventional agriculture and how it actually all works. Why do you think the general public struggles to understand modern agriculture?

I think there are a couple of reasons. One is that by now most people are two, three or four generations removed from the farm. I think the other thing is we all eat three square meals a day—or at least we hope we all do—so it’s a very emotional thing. We are very concerned about what we eat, about our health, the health of our children and our grandchildren and so it is one of those areas where you want to be aware of what you are putting into your body. It becomes one of those levers that people who want to get you upset can easily use because it is such an emotional issue. What we’ve found is that while consumers trust farmers, they don’t trust farming. We just have to do a better job helping them understand what today’s farming is all about and that it still embodies the same principles that they remember of the farmer with pitchfork and the overalls.

The NCGA has invested in the American Ethanol brand. Can you talk about the importance of this effort in educating a broader audience about the value of the corn ethanol industry?

We think the American Ethanol program is one of the best things we’ve ever done. We’ve had a lot of partners that we’ve done things with over the years and I can’t think of a better one than the one we have in NASCAR, in terms of delivering more than what you think you’ve signed up for. Our goal was to be able to have a venue where we could tell the ethanol story through a credible third party, and that third party is NASCAR. It has worked very well. NASCAR drivers and mechanics say, “Ethanol is a good thing. We run it in our hundred thousand dollar engines. You can run it in your engine. E15 works great. We’re getting reasonable mileage.  We’ve run 4 million miles on it.” Et cetera.  When hard-core NASCAR fans hear that, no problem, they’re on board. 

How significant is the splitting of the farm bill in the history of this piece of public policy?

It is very significant. Historically the reason those two programs were put together is that the farm bill has traditionally been a bipartisan, urban and rural supported piece of legislation. Unfortunately we are kind of in a new era in Congress where even this bill is not bipartisan. There is partisan bickering, partisan politics, so the splitting is—I don’t think—so much a commentary on the farm bill and food stamps as it is a commentary on partisan politics.  Agriculture is a big economic presence in the nation, but it is lightly represented in Congress and among people. The food stamp piece was a way to pull the two constituencies together. We think it was a mistake and we hope it gets put back together, but it is a significant departure from what has been done historically. 

How vital is the renewable fuel standard (RFS) to your constituents and American agriculture in general?

Keeping the renewable fuel standard intact is one of our top, if not our top, priority right now. The reason is, it has been so beneficial not only to corn producers but to all of American agriculture. I think if you look back at the last five years when RFS2 really kicked in, we’ve had, I would argue,  no better economic time period for all of agriculture than we’ve ever had despite droughts, despite all kinds of things that have gone on. 

Can you compare and put into context the continuing research in corn utilization in the biofuels segment and other segments that use corn? 

I think the biofuels industry is one of the most innovative industries that I am aware of in agriculture and probably anywhere else. There is innovation and change going on every day, and I think it happens so quickly that people have gotten immune to it and aren’t recognizing or giving out credit for the things that are happening. Take corn oil extraction, three years ago that was kind of a pipe dream, people were talking about it, and now it is pretty mainstream in the industry. That’s a pretty short time period for that to have happened. 

In virtually every measurable category the environmental impact of corn production is going down. What is really driving these gains in efficiency?

First of all, I want to make a point that, in my opinion, the farmer is the ultimate environmentalist. The second thing is, they are also businessmen and they respond to a profit incentive, so there is also a constant pressure to increase yields and reduce inputs. As we have been able to increase yield, we’ve been able to do that by holding inputs the same or reducing them and getting more output per input. That really fits well with sustainability and with environmental concerns but also with net income and profitability. It makes no sense to be sustainable if you aren’t making any money. You aren’t really sustainable. You aren’t going to be around very long.  

Corn yields have risen sharply since the 1940s. Do you think you’ll see 300-bushel averages in your lifetime?

I do. What is really exciting right now is there is a way of thinking differently than we have before about the field as a laboratory and what are all the variables that impact yield, not just the seed and fertilizer. What about soil health, variable planting, variable rates, changing hybrids for soil types even in the same field? You have a sandy portion or a hill and you adapt your planting rates and your hybrids to maximize your opportunity. That whole technology, which is embodied in precision farming, is just starting to come into its own. So, I think we are on the verge of moving up to another plateau and I think 300-bushel national average is certainly within reach in my lifetime.

Last year, your constituents dealt with pervasive drought. This summer has been unseasonably cool but now we’re seeing a “flash drought” in some areas. Some analysts had been predicting a crop of more than14 billion bushels. Where do you think this year’s harvest is likely to come in?

We’ve had a lot of variability in weather, when it seems like no year is the same. This year, the crop is late because in most places it was put in late because of the wet spring and there was a lot of replanting taking place. Then, we’ve had relatively cool temperatures across the Corn Belt this summer so we haven’t had the heat units to get the corn to catch up and mature. Next, we had hot and dry weather in several key corn states. All that being said, we are still looking at a very strong harvest, especially compared to 2012. We’re not so optimistic we’ll get to 14 billion bushels because we’ve had some of the top end taken out but we think it will be a really strong harvest this year that can boost our supply.