When Stephen Censky became CEO of the American Soybean Association in 1996, ASA was emerging from an unsettled sequence of chief executives who came and went quickly. “Steve was a welcome solution,” remembers Ron Heck, an Iowa soybean grower who has worked with Censky almost from the start.
“He is a great listener,” says Heck. “He strives to carry out the wishes of the ASA board. He really listens to what the directors say, he organizes, and he gets it done.”
Heck also praises Censky for representing the industry well and for an almost alarming efficiency.
“One time that just blew me away was on a flight back from an international mission,” he recounts. “It was one of those brutal schedules where you only get three or four hours of sleep each night, and we were exhausted.
“While we waited to board the plane, we talked with Steve about what we had just seen, and by the time our flight was over, he had the report all written.”
After 16 years, Censky’s enthusiasm for getting things done is evident, whether he’s tallying achievements or looking to the future.
“I’m excited by the tremendous change in soybeans. Our production has grown and the crop has become much more important. Soybean crop value has grown from about $13 billion at the farm gate in 1994 to more than $35 billion this year,” he says.
“Exports now take over half of our crop. ASA has contributed to that success story.”
As an example, he cites the negotiations for China to join the World Trade Organization.
“China wanted to impose a tariff-rate quota on soybeans so only a limited amount could enter at the lower tariff, and anything above the quota level would be charged a duty high enough to limit imports. ASA saw what a huge market China could be and worked with U.S. negotiators to get a 3% across-the-board tariff.
“Exports to China now account for one out of every four rows of soybeans we grow.”
Domestically, he notes ASA’s work with the industry to get FDA approval for soy health claims.
“Now you see soy milk as a regular staple and soy protein in nutrition drinks, and processed products because processors can make that health claim.”
He’s not prepared, however, for ASA to rest on its achievements.
“We still have our work cut out. One of the biggest policy challenges we face is how we help an increasingly urban Congress understand the importance of agriculture.
“Another is how we bring new technologies like biotech improved soybeans to the marketplace. The atmosphere is better worldwide, but there are still technology opponents out there, and over the next 10 years there are about 25 new biotech soybean events in the pipeline to be commercialized.”
The challenges are one reason he’s still enthusiastic about his work. Another reason is his optimism.
“I am very confident in the ability of the American farmer to produce food, feed and fuel, and I am extremely optimistic about the future of the soybean industry,” says Censky.
“As we look at world population, income growth and urbanization, it is great news for farmers because when a customer earns an extra dollar, he will spend 40% of it on food. That means more meat and cooking oil, and soybean farmers are uniquely positioned to provide both.”
Censky grew up on a soybean and corn farm in southwestern Minnesota. He earned degrees in agriculture from South Dakota State University and the University of Melbourne, Australia. Before joining ASA, he was legislative assistant to S. D. Senator James Abdnor and held a variety of trade and market development positions at USDA, including acting administrator of the Foreign Agricultural Service.