After 17 years at the United Soybean Board (USB), John Becherer’s job as chief executive officer continues to get more challenging. “The most critical aspect of the job is being trusted with the dollars of fellow farmers who pay into the checkoff,” says Becherer. “Then the challenge is to invest them wisely.”

That’s a job Becherer takes “very, very seriously,” according to growers, and it’s a task that’s growing.

Unlike checkoffs that assess a specific amount per bushel, soybean growers pay one-half of 1% of the market price for each bushel sold. As a result of the run-up in commodity prices, checkoff assessments have doubled, from $42.2 million in 2007 to $82.7 million in 2010.

“The USB has a huge task to try and invest that,” says one grower-leader. “And Becherer works really hard at that job. He’s very committed.”

Becherer himself says his job is always interesting. “My role is to provide the board of directors with the information to make good decisions and with new ideas for them to look at, new ways of doing things.

“Our directors continue to look for new avenues. It’s a testament to their willingness to change with the world in order to get the best impact for the producers they work for.”

Like other checkoffs, USB cannot invest funds in political lobbying. The emphasis, instead, is on research and marketing, though “we are able to do research on elements that are going to impact farmers,” Becherer explains. “We provide information for the entire industry that gives others the tools to influence government policy.”

A prime example of the checkoff’s achievements, he says, is USB’s proactive funding of research into soybean genomics: “It’s critically important for the future that public and private soybean breeders have the latest information to provide future improvements for our industry.”

That’s just one of the successes that prompted the St. Louis Agribusiness Club to name Becherer their 2008-2009 Ag Leader of the Year. That same year, an independent return-on-investment analysis concluded that the soybean checkoff had returned $6.40 in additional profits to growers for every dollar they invested.

Looking forward, Becherer sees both challenges and opportunities.

“Historically, our strategic plans have been geared to increasing the production of soybeans overall and increasing yields. That has to go on, no matter what, but we are also looking at new objectives to increase the value of soybean meal, soybean oil and other soybean components.”

That objective is now part of USB’s new five-year plan, which also sets freedom to operate and a focus on customers as strategic objectives and singles out two priority issues: protecting and supporting U.S. animal agriculture and investing in transportation infrastructure.

“As we look to the future, I think we are going to see increased opportunities to coordinate with other organizations on behalf of agriculture,” Becherer predicts. 

“The whole consumer movement is a real challenge for soybean producers and for agriculture in general – to make sure we have the social license to continue to produce crops and animals for consumers.”

With so many challenges on his plate, “It’s not hard to come to work in the morning,” Becherer says.

 

Raised on a Wisconsin dairy farm, John Becherer earned a B.A. in economics from the University of Wisconsin and an M.A. in agricultural economics from Purdue University. Before joining USB in 1994, he served first as a consultant for Demeter, the nation’s 10th largest merchandising firm, and as executive director and then senior director of development and programs for the Conservation Technology Information Center, a clearinghouse for technical information on soil conservation, water conservation, and water quality.