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Ruhland Leads New Vision for USB

CEO Polly Ruhland charts a new course for soybean checkoff program. She sees a ‘silver lining’ in the trade dispute with China.

Polly Ruhland is finishing up her first year as the chief executive officer at the United Soybean Board (USB), the checkoff organization for American soybean farmers. She held a similar role at another checkoff organization, the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board.

Her mission at USB is to continue the march for soy around the globe and help soybean farmers “know what they grow” – that the quality of U.S. soybeans is what can make a difference in cracking new markets. Successful Farming magazine caught up with Ruhland in a wide-ranging conversation in October, when rain was keeping many farmers out of #Harvest2018.

SF: What is your vision for USB? 

PR: USB has got to be the facilitator of farmers’ businesses going forward. That means part of the visioning is that we need to move faster. We need to provide real-time solutions for farmers – be it in data or be it in the field or be it in the public in the social license arena. The vision is that we’re going to expand or refocus some of the areas that USB has worked on in the past. USB has had a significant hand in production research, for example, to develop new varieties of seed. We need to expand our focus to include true marketing and promotion of beans and bean product to the folks who buy and the influencers – nutritionists, animal and human – but we need to have market data to support that. 

We need to make sure that we protect and defend the reputation of soy in global markets, domestic and international. We need to do research on things other than production research. We need to expand our research scope to sustainability, for example. All these things revolve around moving our focus a little bit toward the end of the chain instead of the beginning of the chain, and helping farmers generate value by that focus. 

SF: It sure feels like agriculture is taking hits from all sides, doesn’t it?

PR: We have, from all areas. I mean it seems like it’s not just the area of social license or the area of litigation or the area of regulation. The face of farming and how farming is done in this country is changing, and it’s changing at a pace that I think farming and farmers aren’t used to. So it’s going to take flexibility and being very dynamic and listening and reacting quickly, I think, to take us into the future. And that’s where the growing pains are happening. 

SF: Farming has pivoted to a real-time cycle. 

PR: In reality, farming throughout history has been somewhat insulated from the speed of business. Folks who maybe are in other industries are used to the constant acceleration of the speed of business. Farming has been largely excluded from that, I think. The way that farming is being included in this speedy transition – that’s not new to the rest of the world, to other businesses – is an especially cold bath of water for the farmers and for the farming business. So they’re expected to catch up at a more rapid pace maybe than other businesses that have been accelerating over the last 20, 30, maybe even more years. 

How is USB coaching farmers to listen and react?

PR: One of our key objectives at USB is to understand and link data streams and data networks so that farmers have the ability in the future to use technology more easily in a linked kind of way. There is a way – and other industries have done it – to better link those data streams so that farmers have not only access to data, which is a strange thing that farmers often don’t have access to production data that allows them to make real time decisions, but also have a management tool so the data aren’t overwhelming. 

So we believe strongly at USB, that not only the yield is important, but also the quality of the product we’re producing is equally important globally. Not only for domestic customers like pork and chicken nutritionists, but also for international customers who may buy whole beans or who may buy meal in other countries. We need farmers to understand what they grow. Here at USB, we’re calling it, “Know what they grow.” That means for bean content like oil and meal, farmers understand what the quality of those particular elements are. That involves data capture and return to farmers. Processors and elevators know what the protein and oil content of beans is. That data somehow needs to be captured by farmers and used in rapid, real-time production decisions. That’s one of the ways that, at USB, we’re working on helping farmers come into this speed-of-business environment. 

SF: Where did your Twitter handle (@pollypencilplow) come from?

PR: Isn’t it funny? There’s a quote from President Eisenhower. I was an Eisenhower fellow some years ago. Eisenhower was a big, big, big supporter of agriculture. One of his quotes says, “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from a cornfield.” Here I stand in the middle of my office working for agriculture, not on a combine or on a plow. So my plow is a pencil and I’m a thousand miles from a cornfield. I use my brain to help agriculture, not my muscles.

SF: Are you, as one of the Tweets said in jest, going to run for president of the United States? 

PR: That’s not the plan. You’d almost have to be crazy to run for president these days, wouldn’t you? I don’t think so. I think I’m pretty darn happy where I am.

SF: What did you learn from being an Eisenhower fellow? 

PR: I studied value chains and the marketing of beef in both Japan and Taiwan. It was a six-week study, and it’s really fascinating how trends from Japan, particularly, as far as both social license and actual consumer marketing trends translate to this country. A lot of times, we can look at the EU and Japan and we can see what is coming down the pipe, which is very useful for us here in agriculture in the U.S., because if you can see it, you can get ahead of it. 

The boiled-down lesson I learned is that other countries give us really good ways to look forward and see what might be coming here. The activists working against some of the issues – particularly in the beef industry – are a great example of that. You could see those coming to the U.S. from Europe years before they actually got here. 

SF: How do you turn your lens to the trade challenges that soy is having? 

PR: I’ll tell you, it’s funny because when I first took this job last November, I saw the amount of soy that we were exporting percentage-wise to China, and as a person with a marketing background, the first thing I said was, “Holy smokes, we’ve got to diversify that portfolio because that’s a lot of eggs in one basket,” so to speak. Indeed, sometimes crisis brings silver linings, and I can tell you with the challenge that we’re having on trade, with the situation out among farmers right now, many of them can’t get into field, prices are low. It’s just a very, very tough time to be a soybean farmer. 

The silver lining for that is that the checkoff has been able to refocus a lot of our international marketing dollars to other countries. We had already started to do this as a result of the realization that we’re too heavily invested in one country. China is a great customer of ours, and we want to keep it. But we want to diversify, too. This has given us kind of a push in the checkoff to refocus into more basic markets and understand how we can sell  globally without such a heavy reliance on China. 

That doesn’t help us right now, as you can imagine. But the silver lining is that we’re investing in other countries and showing them the benefits of soy so that when China comes back and is a good customer to us again and we can rely on them once again, then we will also have a diversified international portfolio. 

The other thing that we’re doing that’s kind of been forced by crisis is reinvesting more heavily in other areas of soy, like other uses. For example, examining motor oils and surfactants and some of the other great uses. Soy is such a unique product because we can use it in so many ways. Crisis sometimes brings good change, and that’s what we’re trying to do in the checkoff: make this crisis bring good change further down the road for soy farmers. 

SF: You’re still optimistic.

PR: Checkoff programs to me are cooperative programs in farming. That cooperative nature of checkoffs makes them even more useful. I think when times are bad, even though it’s hard for farmers to see that coming out of their checks, I would just say, hang with us and we’re going to hang with you and try to use farmer investments the best we can, because we know that that money is hard to come by these days.

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