Grower profitability is Pam Johnson's mission. The Floyd, IA, fifth-generation farmer has invested countless volunteer hours in moving growers up the value chain.
As a director and past chair of the Iowa Corn Promotion Board, her most recent efforts are helping to launch an equity fund called Iowa Corn Opportunities by the Iowa Corn Grower's Association (see sidebar). “The mission is to create opportunities for long-term Iowa corn-grower profitability,” Johnson says.
She and her husband Maurice benefited from investments in two ethanol plants, and she sees economic opportunity determining her sons' ability to farm and her community's well-being.
But those opportunities didn't just happen. One of her first volunteer efforts was the Floyd (IA) County Visioning Project. Formed 16 years ago by a group of concerned citizens, local government, ag business leaders and county Extension Director George Cummins, they dared to dream of value-added opportunities their county could hatch if they had a plan.
“We were asked to identify what we wanted our county and lives to look like in 10 years,” Johnson says. The group set goals in four areas: the economy, environment, quality of life and education/mentoring. The effort was moderated by the Institute of Decision Making at the University of Northern Iowa.
“The group addressed visionary questions about new enterprises: who owns them, who controls them and who benefits — that became a mantra and a metric,” Johnson adds. “This set the bar high. But we need to compromise because not all that benefits a local community will meet all three all the time.
“We took a field trip to the ‘co-op capital of the world’ (Renville, MN) to see how farmers worked together to add value through hogs, chickens and ethanol. It really opened our eyes,” she says.
WHEN THE GROUP returned home, they split into groups dedicated to several value-added efforts. “One group spun off a local sow co-op. I became involved in linking young farmers with retiring farmers.
“Our family became some of the early investors in ethanol because of what I learned in the leadership group. At the time, local farmers were organizing to build an ethanol plant in our county. Our group eventually joined other farmer-investors in Minnesota to build a plant near Albert Lea, named Exol, now managed by Poet.”
Over time, a development organization to help farmers launch value-added agricultural business enterprises began: Ag Ventures Alliance. It's helped farmers incubate ideas that resulted in Golden Oval Egg, Midwest Grain Processors and Minnesota Soybean Processors.
Future ventures under consideration by Ag Ventures today include Swaledale (IA) Bio-Village, wind and other alternative energy businesses; and dairy and cattle-feeding enterprises. They are all farmer-initiated, researched and launched.
Based in Mason City, IA, Ag Ventures provides contacts and expertise in financial, legal and fundraising expertise to “serial entrepreneurs,” says Ag Ventures Executive Director Don Hofstrand (see August 2008 Corn & Soybean Digest, “Hedging Bets Through Added Value”).
“Some of these businesses have been more successful than others,” Johnson says. “The failure rate of entrepreneurial start-up companies may be above 50%. For example, my family invested in soybean-based building products called Phoenix. The timing wasn't right and it was undercapitalized.”
But that hasn't kept her from supporting new ideas and growing leaders to continue value-added efforts.
One of the first committees she chaired in the larger world was for the Iowa Corn Growers Association and Promotion Board to devise a leadership program now called I-LEAD. “We started with a blank slate and came out with something way beyond what any one person could do,” Johnson says. “I-LEAD students attend U.S. Grains Council and National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) meetings, they walk the halls of Congress and they travel abroad. After two years of this they're ready to make a difference in their corner of the world.”
AT HOME IN FLOYD, IA, adding value to the 1,200 acres of corn and soybeans she farms with husband Maurice begins with hogs. (Her grown sons Ben and Andy farm additional acreage.) In addition to her everyday hands-on role at the farm, she is a full-time volunteer. She's a director on the Iowa Corn Promotion Board, delegate to the NCGA, chairperson of the NCGA Research and Business Development Action Team; member of the U.S. Grains Council Biotech Team, member of the Iowa Agricultural Products Advisory Council and president of Iowa Corn Opportunities new corn equity fund (see sidebar). Johnson was also recently named Iowa Farm Bureau Woman of the Year in Agriculture.
“I love my work in agriculture, both out in the bigger world and as an active part of our farming operation working with the next generation,” she says. “It's a great balance.”
WHAT LED FROM farming to this level of civic involvement for this self-described introvert? She recalls a local elevator bankruptcy hearing. “I had to really leave my comfort zone at that hearing to communicate what that elevator failure would mean in the daily lives of my neighbors,” she says. “Before that, I had chosen to be home with the kids and farm.”
Johnson says she's learned the difference one person can make in state and national corn issues.
“For example, testifying for funding to sequence the corn genome can result in better seed traits and advance more sustainable farming practices. Already we hear of hybrids being developed to use water and nutrients more efficiently,” she says.
“It's exciting to learn as much as I can from smart people and get better at what I do. Yes, it's intimidating, but what a great chance to be mentored.”
Of all the issues Johnson has been involved in, farm profitability and value-added have won most of her attention. “Knowing our two kids have always really wanted to farm has kept me on track, knowing it's all about economics.”
THE NEXT STEP IN VALUE-ADDED
Iowa Corn Opportunities (ICO) is in the process of forming a fund to offer opportunities for individual Iowa corn growers to invest in value-added ventures. The planned fund will be sponsored by ICO, with significant support from the Iowa Corn Growers Association (ICGA). Expected to launch in the second quarter of 2009, it will operate as a business development company, says ICO president and Floyd, IA, corn grower Pam Johnson.
It will resemble a venture capital fund in the types of investments in its portfolio. Unlike most venture capital funds, it will be open to investment from corn growers and other interested investors. This will allow them to participate in “private equity” while diversifying their portfolios and investing in a sector that they care about.
“For many years, ICGA and the Iowa Corn Promotion Board have worked to create new investment opportunities in value-added agriculture,” Johnson says. “Following this strategy, the ICGA established Iowa Corn Opportunities, LLC, early in 2008.”
ICO is owned by the ICGA and directed by a five-member board of managers. “ICO was organized for three main reasons: to make profitable, strategic, value-added investments that will benefit ICGA; to help new value-added agriculture business development opportunities become successful; and to create further investment opportunities for individual corn growers.”