Jean Payne

Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association, speaks as a pesticide safety bill was signed by then Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich in 2005.

Jean Payne’s telephone rang early on April 25, 2019 with bad news.

It was a day that would call on her three decades of experience in the industry. It would also lead to months of work to help fix some things that needed fixing.

As president of the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association (IFCA), her phone immediately started ringing when a leaking anhydrous ammonia tank in a Chicago suburb sent dozens of people to hospital at 4:30 a.m.

In all, she said 80 people were affected or hospitalized, some in critical condition, as a result of the tank leakage. Nearby schools were closed, residents checked on, motorists assisted.

“A lot of people were hurt that day,” she said.

Payne was soon speaking to media and taking action to ensure something like that didn’t happen again.

“As the president of the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association, people see me as the face of the industry,” she said.

Payne takes that role seriously. It includes fertilizer stewardship and training, advocating judicious use of chemicals, deciphering regulations, communicating with the public, and taking action when emergencies arise

That day, IFCA owned up to there being a problem and worked to find solutions for more safely transporting anhydrous ammonia, she said. The positive result is a new training program starting this year.

Quick action was also required the coronavirus suddenly wrapped its self around the world this year. Everything stopped. Truck drivers couldn’t get their commercial driver’s licenses renewed at the Department of Transportation. Retailers and farmers couldn’t get their hazardous materials endorsements from the EPA to legally spray crops.

Although agriculture was deemed an essential service, people worried how things could carry on without having access to regulatory institutions.

In a matter of days things were moving again.

“We were overwhelmed how well we could all work together and make that happen,” she said.

It required “tons of phone calls” but the disruption was handled.

“It was all very rewarding to see,” Payne said.

Some issues she works with aren’t resolved as quickly, including concerns about the safety of dicamba. It has already involved years of work with regulations, safety concerns and training for applicators.

“It is a great crop protection product, it’s about how to use it safely,” she said.

She has done a lot of work concerning the safety of dicamba and other products over the years, helping people understand regulations and working on training, said Regan Wear, agronomy manager of CHS in Shipman, Ill., who has known Payne for years.

She has been prominent in the field of stewardship and is passionate about agriculture and doing things the correct way, Wear said. He cites her efforts in promoting the 4 Rs in applying fertilizer at the right rate of application, from the right source, at the right time and to the right place. She also has played an instrumental role in the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy effort, he said.

“Payne also leads two of the best events in the industry, the Midwest Ag Industries Expo, (the Magie Show) in Bloomington and the annual Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association convention in Peoria,” he said.

Every fertilizer dealer in the state knows who to call if they have trouble.

“That’s a fact,” Wear said.

Still, she is a woman in a field that has predominately been male-dominated.

Sometimes men may have made “a little nicer choice with their words” but other than that she saw no difference in how she was treated.

“If it was an advantage being a woman, I didn’t take advantage of it,” she said. “Never once did I feel disrespected. These people have my back and therefore I have their back.”

Payne is pleased to see so many young women choosing a variety of agricultural careers today. She didn’t initially plan a career in this field.

“Sometimes it finds you,” she said.

After studying liberal arts and English at Illinois State University, she landed a job position working with Growmark Inc., a regional agricultural supply cooperative and worked for them in Bloomington for 12 years. The company was a member of IFCA, which recruited to do similar work on regulatory issues. In 2004 she became president of the state’s fertilizer and chemical association — only the second president in the organization’s 50 years.

In the past 22 years, she has worked with state legislators, governors, testified in Washington D.C., organized trade shows and answered a variety of phone calls, happily few like that of April 25, 2019.

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.