As chairman of the Illinois Soybean Association, Doug Schroeder is on the road anywhere from two to three months a year. Exactly how many depends on how much time he wants to put into the position.
“Pre-COVID, I would say the chairman is gone 60 to 90 days,” he said. “Part of it is how much you want to raise your hand.”
Schroeder has been raising his hand for many years. The Champaign County corn and soybean farmer has been on the ISA board since 2013.
“Some (directors) are very energetic and want to do things,” he said. “Quite frankly, I look at whether I really need to be there. Is there someone else? I have a life.”
Indeed, Schroeder serves as a district director and member of ISA’s marketing committee in addition to his top job. Otherwise, he keeps busy with his farm near Mahomet, Illinois, and with his wife, Stacy, and three children. He is active with the Cunningham Children’s Home, the United Methodist Church, the Mahomet Area Youth Club, the Lions Club and McLean County Farm Bureau.
As head of the organization representing the nation’s largest soybean-growing state, Schroeder represents the interests of 43,000 farmers. Those include everything from politics to research. But the main focus is on international markets.
“Sixty percent of grain in Illinois goes for export, so it’s important for us to talk to buyers,” he said. “It’s face-to-face, personal interaction. We look at what we are doing right and what we are doing wrong. It’s boots on the ground. What’s the next China? Is it India? There are going to be more people in India than China soon.”
One player in the global market getting increasing attention is Egypt.
“We’re always looking for countries with growing GDP and growing populations. Those are the two things,” Schroeder said. “Because of the growing GDP they’re going to be improving their diet, so hopefully they’ll be eating more meat and less grain. Meat is like a seven-to-one advantage moving soybeans through an animal. It’s a huge benefit for real consumption.”
Another place the board has its eyes on is Cuba. Schroeder would like to see the communist nation opened up more to U.S. ag commodities. He has visited the island country and came away with real concerns.
“We’re only 90 miles away from Cuba. But the government has banned extended credit to Cuban companies to import grain,” he said. “American government mandates that they have to pay cash. But Cuba can get credit from other countries, so where are they going to go, even though we’re the closest and most reliable? I get the other side, but government has a major influence on the outcome of producers.
“They grow a lot of rice in Louisiana, yet Cuba imports almost all their rice from Vietnam. How much sense does that make?”
As a member of the marketing committee, Schroeder puts in the miles. That includes meeting with politicians as well as customers.
“We’re on the road all the time, to Springfield, Washington and other places,” he said. “We do fact-finding trips. If it’s worthy, we’ll do it. It’s just a matter of what is relevant to the farmers we represent.”
Politics plays a major role in the ag industry, which over the past few decades has been affected by domestic as well as international policies.
“The government blinks and we have a crisis on the farm,” Schroeder said. “That’s the way it’s always been.”
The latest blinking involves the push toward renewable energy. Schroeder is concerned about the effect on products such as biodiesel because demand would conceivably shrink as more energy is generated from sources such as solar and wind power.
“All this climate change, carbon sequestration, net zero emissions and the other buzzwords, we’re in it up to our necks,” he said. “Some people are looking to farmers to sequester carbon in the soil. They expect us to clean up what industry is doing. It’s all to be played out. That’s the intangible thing these commodity organizations do for people we represent.”
Besides serving as chairman of ISA, Schroeder also heads up the state’s checkoff program. The two organizations are comprised of the same staff but are by law separate, as the checkoff board is prohibited from engaging in political activities.
“We do it all at once. We track time and hours just like an attorney would book,” he said. “There are so many hours of checkoff work today and so many hours of non-checkoff. It’s an accounting headache. But we’ve had clean audits for as long as I’ve been on the board.”
Schroeder is proud of the work ISA does, though he acknowledges the challenges.
“We try really hard to get it right,” he said. “We’re trying to turn over a lot of rocks. There is stuff that doesn’t make sense today but may have legs in the future.”