Jim Raben, a southern Illinois grain farmer, became chairman of the U.S. Grains Council in July.
At a time when most travel is suspended, the council continues its international efforts to develop export markets for U.S. barley, corn, sorghum and related products including distiller’s dried grains with solubles (DDGS) and ethanol.
Raben has a good foundation for such a role. As a youth, he gained leadership skills through 4-H and FFA and continued his education at Southern Illinois University. He has decades of family farming experience, and honed his people skills and broadened his understanding of agricultural issues while working with the Illinois Farm Bureau and Illinois Corn Marketing Board.
The self-described “people person” was looking forward to travel and meeting people eye-to-eye in his new role. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, he had to adapt his approach to get the job done. While Raben said he is not a fan of virtual meetings, he and the council have made them work to build new trade relationships and to nurture established partnerships.
IFT: Tell us a little bit about your connections to agriculture.
RABEN: My grandfather, dad and brother, Bill, all farmed in southern Illinois. I worked on the farm all my life with the exception of teaching school for three years. I was a pre-vet major and stayed in animal science to graduate in three years and earned my degree in education. School opens doors for you, and you go from there. Today I farm with my sons, James (Matthew) and Joseph, in Ridgway in Gallatin County.
IFT: What lead you to get involved with the U.S. Grains Council?
RABEN: I like marketing anyway, but when I was a delegate for Illinois Corn Marketing Board to the Grains Council, I got interested in being more involved. Once you get into the executive, you are grandfathered in — unless you really mess up.
IFT: Do you remember when you first knew COVID-19 would have a big impact on the world, on you, and your job?
RABEN: It was in late January and I was in Vietnam when we first learned about it. Then we traveled to Myanmar (which borders both India and China in the north). The trip was about relationship building. Myanmar doesn’t buy from us now, but as they grow and expand they may in the future. You couldn’t ask for nicer people. As more information about the coronavirus became public, we had people worried about us getting out of the country.
IFT: During the pandemic, how did you start your new role as chairman?
RABEN: The Grains Council meeting in July was a virtual meeting. I’m a people person so it was different not going there. I live in southern Illinois where the internet (connection) isn’t always good. I did not want to lose the internet during my first speech, so I went to the Illinois Corn offices in Bloomington. They had a big screen for holding the National Corn Growers Association meetings. I stood up in front of a mic without an (in-person) audience. I go to a podium to give my speech and could see people on the screen. It was better than sitting at my desk at home.
IFT: How has the organization adapted to doing business during a pandemic?
RABEN: We have a lot of virtual meetings. I don’t really like virtual meetings, but it’s the hand we’ve been dealt. My father always told me, “You might not like the hand you are dealt, but you play it the best you can.”
IFT: How has the pandemic changed your job?
RABEN: Usually I would be traveling to meet with people around the world, but COVID-19 has changed the way we connect with people. Our staff has done a great job with the virtual meetings we have had. Maybe it’s just a thing of the future. For the ethanol summit, 1,200 people registered for the online meeting. Whether I like virtual meetings or I don’t, you reach more people this way, which is good.
IFT: Every chairman has a theme for their year. What is yours?
RABEN: Building relationships builds trade. We deal with people who we build relationships with. When I got involved with working in Brazil, I learned the relationships you build make things happen. The first time I went I didn’t know if it was a scam. Now we have made great friends there. We talk weekly. When you visit another country, you see other people can farm just as well as we can. It made me more knowledgeable.
IFT: When traveling in-person is allowed, what is something you do before you go to a new country?
RABEN: I learn a simple phrase. When I have to give a U.S. production report, I start with “Hello” and learn to say “thank you” in their language. If you take the time to do what you think is right, it makes a difference.
IFT: How is U.S. Grains doing concerning promoting trade this year?
RABEN: Trade has been going fairly well. China is buying again due to administrative pressure. They were sort of taking advantage of us. They are back into buying. As far as corn this year, it is off to a strong start. They have bought 10.5 million metric tons of corn so far this year.
IFT: What will you do next year to stay connected when your term as chairman is over?
RABEN: The past chair has some duties on the nominating committee and other things. After making all these friends it’s hard to just stop cold turkey. I hope they ask me to tag along. Travel is good with the grandkids, too. They’ve been to Brazil and Costa Rica.
IFT: How do you think things will be different for your grandchildren?
RABEN: The next generation will have to be more than what we are. They have to deal with the (whole) world. We didn’t have to unless we wanted to.
IFT: What else would you like farmers to know about the U.S. Grains Council?
RABEN: We still maintain our mission of developing markets, enabling trade and improving lives. We stand by it. We are still getting new markets, and staff is working hard. Staff takes it like their own family. It is a great group. If you believe in something, it makes life a whole lot easier.