Forty years hence, founders recall SD Soybean’s start

The South Dakota Soybean Association (SDSA) has reached a milestone. The organization is 40 years old this year. The process of being chartered took years of organizational work, meetings, and coaxing the state’s soybean growers to become members of the new organization. Much of that work was done by growers and agribusiness people who saw the merit in such an endeavor. "I met [co-founder] Jerry Schmitz,” said Dave Drennan, formerly a regional manager for the American Soybean Association (ASA), who attended meetings put on by seed and agricultural chemical representatives to meet and talk to farmers. “I remember being at a Curry Seed meeting in Elk Point.” Drennan attended that meeting and others like it to recruit help in organizing a state soybean association affiliate. One of those enlisted was Jerry Schmitz, executive director of South Dakota Soybean and a co-founder of the organization.

“The association began as a requirement that we affiliate 125 farmer/members,” recalled Schmitz, during an earlier interview for The Soybean Pod podcast. Schmitz was asked during one of those meetings in the early 1980s to help sign up farmers who would be the first members of the South Dakota Soybean Association (SDSA). Schmitz was convinced when Drennan told him a soybean association in South Dakota could work to improve demand for soybeans. “That intrigued me,” said Schmitz. “We actually got together with a few other folks, Mark Berg being one, who was later [SDSA] president, and president of the American Soybean Association. We decided on an ambulance barn in Elk Point, South Dakota, set up four telephones, and we just started calling farmers, and we were able to achieve in a week’s time 125 people so that we could affiliate.”

Farmer leadership is one of the most important facets of setting up a state commodity group, and to have those leaders recruit their neighbors, according to Drennan. “The number one reason people say they don’t belong is they’ve never been asked,” said Drennan. “People have got to ask.” Drennan adds that he’s “extremely” proud that the South Dakota Soybean Association has thrived and grown in its 40 years of existence. “It’s hard to believe South Dakota is such a major soybean producer now 40 years later,” said Drennan. “I guarantee you that the state organization getting started has had a lot to do with that by providing the legislative voice on soybean issues, working with the other ag groups in the state and nationally, and then through their checkoff, hosting trade teams, doing promotional work here and abroad, [and] developing those markets to absorb that production increase.”

Jerry Schmitz also recalls the benefits of the SDSA as a legislative and policy voice. At the time the SDSA was being considered, said Schmitz, there was discussion of abandoning rail lines in South Dakota, lines that now transport soybeans for export.

“We saw the potential with China utilizing a great amount of our product, and that we were the furthest west. And so, we were actually the perfect opportunity for moving soybeans west, but we needed rail to do that,” said Schmitz. “And so that was one of the topics of discussion.”

South Dakota Soybean Association leaders Mark Berg and Larry Diedrich. (undated photo) Photo: South Dakota Soybean Association.

While recording the interview, Jerry recalled a 1982 photo taken of founding members gathered in Minneapolis, where the South Dakota Soybean Association was chartered. “Absolutely, Ron Hefty was there, and he was instrumental in that he had just a number of farmers, but also put on programs for farmers, because he was a large chemical and fertilizer dealer, and he actually became the first vice-president of the South Dakota Soybean Association,” said Schmitz. “Also in there is Frank Kloucek. Frank helped us recruit people and get folks in, so it was a united effort.”

Drennan says the effort paid off because of the number of soybean uses resulting in greater demand for soybeans. “When I first started working for ASA, we called [soybeans] the gold that grows, and today there are so many more uses for soybeans that we weren’t even thinking of,” said Drennan. “Most of the time I worked for ASA, it was common knowledge that about half the crop was exported, so that’s why it was so important to get a checkoff passed was to continue to promote those export markets. Now today we’re talking about biodiesel, we’re talking about plastics, just so many new uses for both soybeans and corn that didn’t exist in the early 80s, weren’t even thought of.”