ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA, US — After 43 years of service, Randy Gordon, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of the National Feed and Grain Association (NGFA) is stepping down and passing the torch.
Gordon joined NGFA in 1978 as its director of information services. In 1987, he was elected as NGFA’s vice president for communications and government relations. He then became CEO in 2012.
Upon Gordon’s retirement in March, Michael J. Seyfert, will step in as CEO.
World Grain recently spoke with Gordon about his career with NGFA and his thoughts on the association’s future opportunities and challenges.
WG: What will be the biggest challenge for Michael Seyfert as he follows you in this position?
Gordon: The most immediate challenge will be to orient Biden administration officials and new members of Congress about the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA) and the indispensable role its more than 1,000 member companies play in storing, handling, processing, marketing and exporting a safe, abundant, affordable and sustainable supply of grains, oilseeds, animal food and ingredients to US and global consumers. There will be 60 new members of the House and nine new senators, plus new decision-makers in the administration with whom NGFA will want to meet to present its policy priorities on trade, transportation, infrastructure, and a host of other key issues. That process already has begun. With his extensive public policy experience both on Capitol Hill and in the private sector, Mike is very well equipped to lead this effort with our industry members and professional staff.
WG: What other key issues will your successor have to address in the future?
Gordon: I am certain NGFA will want to play a leadership role with other national agricultural producer and agribusiness organizations to proactively address issues like climate change and sustainability – a big focus of the Biden administration – as well as enhancing consumer understanding and, hopefully, acceptance of the value of efficient and sustainable modern crop and animal agriculture production practices so essential to achieving food security. Another near-term priority is research being conducted through NGFA’s Foundation to document the contribution that the grain, feed and processing industry – and modern farming and working lands conservation practices – play in contributing to carbon sequestration and preserving natural resources as well as the economies of the rural communities.
Another huge issue is to keep and further enhance US agriculture’s competitive advantage in domestic and global markets. There are numerous policies that will be essential if we are going to achieve that one. For starters, conservation programs need to be targeted at idling truly environmentally sensitive land versus productive farmland. Doing otherwise will jeopardize US agriculture’s competitiveness and encourage foreign competitors to replace our production on an almost acre-for-acre basis, as has happened in the not-too-distant past, thereby threatening US economic growth, the future of rural communities and the prospects for the next generation of producers to access sufficient land to establish economically viable farming operations.
Keeping US agriculture competitive also requires a robust trade agenda that enhances market access for US products and dismantles non-tariff trade barriers, such as unscientific and non-risk-based sanitary and phytosanitary measures, that can shut off trade flows. Investment also is needed in America’s transportation infrastructure – a major factor in American agriculture’s competitive advantage. In that regard, there is an urgent need to replace the woefully outdated locks-and-dams on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois River System, most of which are well beyond their 50-year lifespan which I have likened to a ticking time bomb. There also is a need to instill more competition in America’s freight rail system, and giving tangible meaning to rail carriers’ common-carrier obligation under current law “to provide service upon reasonable request.” Unfortunately, carriers now too often unilaterally dictate the terms, frequency, and type of rail service offered to agricultural customers.
WG: How critical is China as a grain market to the US? How much work is being done to develop alternative markets?
Gordon: China will remain a key market for US grain, oilseeds, and meat exports, and NGFA is encouraged by signals thus far from the Biden administration that it is not looking to disrupt or undermine the Phase One agreement. NGFA remains hopeful that China will fulfill its purchase commitments. However, we do hope to see more “normalization” of commercial trade with China, in which private sector Chinese market participants are enabled to be more active in importing US agricultural products, in addition to China’s state-owned trading enterprises.
WG: What are the most significant changes that have occurred in the industry during the time you have been with NGFA?
Gordon: One, of course, has been the continuing trend toward larger, more sophisticated, and more productive farms. The new genetics developed by the seed sector and tremendous advances in a wide range of farm equipment certainly have made major contributions. These changes, in turn, have contributed to increased consolidation in the agribusiness sector, although it remains a very competitive industry. I would also cite the increased globalization of agriculture, which has led to an expansion of US trade and greater global food security as economic growth has led to improved diets – particularly for animal protein – around the world.
The growth of the meat and pet food sectors also has been significant. There also have been tremendous advancements in technology and market risk-management tools used within our industry and their farmer-customers. And, very importantly, the research NGFA led in the late 1970s and 1980s resulted in the fundamental redesign of grain elevators and grain-handling equipment to enhance safety.
WG: What were some of the key issues/challenges you faced and addressed as chief executive officer?
Gordon: One unfortunately has involved several instances in which transgenic biotechnology-enhanced events were commercialized for planting in the United States before some technology developers obtained import authorizations from US export markets. That resulted in several trade disruptions and economic losses incurred by US exporters and market losses for American farmers. The most notorious of these occurred in 2012 and involved Syngenta’s MIR-162 corn event that had been approved for planting in the United States but had not received import authorization yet by China. That trait subsequently was detected in US shipments which, in turn, were rejected by China. The reality is that our industry currently confronts a zero tolerance when it comes to the presence of unauthorized biotech traits in shipments, given the current lack of a low-level-presence policy which, if in place, would allow adventitious presence of such traits if they have been approved as safe for human and animal food and the environment by the government in the country of export using science- and risk-based principles. NGFA continues to work with its partners in the seed and biotech sectors to urge that they obtain import market authorizations in US export markets prior to commercialization. NGFA also seeks more transparency when it comes to commercialization of gene-edited crops. We are also working to develop a coordinated strategy for encouraging the development of a more rational, science- and risk-based approach by global governments regarding what level of regulatory oversight is appropriate for gene-edited crops. NGFA believes strongly in the need for innovation in seed and crop production, but that needs to be accompanied by the need to ensure the marketability of crops produced through such technologies.
On the facility operations side, our industry and its customers have confronted the challenge of preventing engulfments in grain bins. NGFA has responded over the last several years in developing proactive outreach to both our industry and farm organizations in safety education and training that we hope will lead to a dramatic reduction in these tragic incidents. Most of these incidents occur in farm bins, and NGFA is responding through its foundation to target life-saving messages directly to farmer-customers.
A third challenge that comes to mind resulted from the unintended consequences of a drafting error in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 that created the so-called “grain glitch.” In devising a solution, NGFA worked extensively with its membership, the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and the tax-writing committees of Congress to amend the law to replicate to the greatest extent possible the tax benefits accorded to farmer-owned cooperatives and their farmer-patrons under the previous Section 199 (also known as the Domestic Production Activities Deduction), while also restoring the competitive landscape of the marketplace as it existed when the law was passed in December 2017. NGFA’s consistent objective was to prevent the tax code from providing an incentive for farmers to do business with a company based solely because it is organized as a cooperative or private/independent firm.
WG: What do you consider some of your greatest achievements in your time with NGFA?
Gordon: I do not see anything to be “my” achievement, but rather the result of foresight and great teamwork involving our industry leadership, committees, NGFA’s staff and the partnership and alliances we have with our affiliated state and regional Associations, the North American Export Grain Association, the Pet Food Institute and other agribusiness and producer organizations.
One that continues to resonate is NGFA’s successful effort to end federal acreage-idling programs. Starting in 1992, while I was on staff but long before I became president and CEO, NGFA played the preeminent role – through its US Agriculture 20/20 research and education program conducted under the auspices of NGFA’s Foundation – to overturn nearly five decades of entrenched government supply management policies. The message was simple and direct: Acreage idling policies already had resulted in a decade of economic stagnation that was plaguing US agriculture, and that South American and other global competitors were replacing US idled acreage by clearing and planting new land on nearly an acre-for-acre basis. Fortunately, we had a legislative champion – Pat Roberts, US Senator from Kansas – who was willing to take the research and economic analysis NGFA did and lead the charge to enact what became known as the “Freedom to Farm Act” of 1996. NGFA supported the effort with a series of local town hall meetings involving local farm leaders, grain and feed managers, bankers, farm supply companies and its affiliated state and regional associations that built grassroots support for this major policy change. When retiring in December, Roberts cited Freedom to Farm as his signature legislative accomplishment. The challenge going forward is to oppose attempts by some to misuse the Conservation Reserve Program to idle productive farmland.
Of course, there have been many others, most recently including NGFA’s impact in working with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to achieve a workable speculative position limit rule for hedgers; efforts to help draft and shape regulations implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act; increasing investments in inland waterway infrastructure; modernizing truck regulation to increase capacity for ag; efforts to counter the market power of railroads that increasingly dictate the terms, frequency and conditions in providing service to ag shippers and receivers; and NGFA’s efforts to help draft federal guidance giving priority to food and agriculture sector workers for personal protection equipment and vaccinations for COVID-19.
WG: When reflecting on your 43 years in the industry, what did you enjoy most about it?
Gordon: Without question, it is the people. I have been so blessed to work and get to know wonderful, outstanding people within NGFA’s industry membership, colleagues in other producer and agribusiness trade associations, government officials, and, of course, within our staff. I will cherish those friendships and memories for a lifetime.
WG: What expansion and growth opportunities do you see for NGFA members in the future?
Gordon: As always has been the case at NGFA, the future will be driven by the industry it serves. NGFA’s Board of Directors, and network of 17 committees – on which more than 300 dedicated industry volunteers serve – will work with NGFA’s next president and CEO and its staff to chart that future. I do think our industry is signaling its desire to create a more diverse and inclusive workforce and to proactively address issues like climate change and sustainability, as well as to better inform consumers about the indispensable role the industry plays in feeding US and global consumers. With more than 1,000 member companies involved in virtually all facets of the commercial industry – grain elevators, feed manufacturers, millers, grain processors, ethanol manufacturers, exporters and allied industries that provide products or services to our members – NGFA arguably is the largest and most diverse US agribusiness trade association. So, it is well-equipped to provide the services and government representation needed by its membership.
WG: The industry is going through a period of uncertainty with the global Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. How has the NGFA adapted in supporting its goal to promote the growth and economic performance of North American agriculture in a global marketplace during this time?
Gordon: NGFA is very fortunate to serve as the private sector vice chair of the public-private partnership known as the Food and Agriculture Sector Coordinating Council (FASCC), which was chartered after the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001 to enhance the security and resiliency of the nation’s critical infrastructures, of which food and agriculture is one. We worked very closely with our outstanding federal government partners from USDA and the Food and Drug Administration to help draft DHS’s essential worker policy guidance that largely was followed by states and localities that allowed our and other critical infrastructure industries to keep operating during the pandemic rather than being shut down by stay-at-home orders. As a result, the grain, feed, milling, grain processing and export industries continued to function. While disruptions and economic losses certainly were sustained by the meat processing, dairy and ethanol sectors, this really enabled our industry to continue to serve North American and global markets. When I joined NGFA’s staff in 1978, we often used the phrase that our industry has the capability to “turn on a dime” and adapt efficiently and quickly to disruptions. That certainly was reinforced by how well the food and agriculture sector responded to the pandemic.
Operationally, NGFA adapted very quickly to a virtual environment to conduct association and committee business and ramped up communications and virtual conferences. We also had a well-established telework policy in place for NGFA staff, which provided a seamless transition to a work-from-home environment.
WG: The NGFA recently partnered with the National Grain and Feed Digital Solutions (NGFDS) to create a Barge Digital Transformation (BDT) platform that will simplify the current paperwork processes common in the barge trade. How do you think this will benefit the grain industry and are there plans for similar digitization projects for other documentation aspects within the grain industry?
Gordon: This is the latest business-efficiency service developed in response to industry demand. I believe this is one of the most significant new commercial services to be offered by any trade association in recent history. It enables those who trade barges to transmit bills of lading and other documents digitally, thereby dramatically reducing the need for paper bills of lading that needed to be sent by overnight courier services – a huge cost savings in terms of reduced paperwork, delivery costs and back-office administrative support services. NGFDS is an affiliated entity with NGFA, with its own organizational structure to implement and administer the new platform, along with the technology provider – essDOCS. This platform now is being used to transmit barge bills of lading for southbound movements of corn and will be expanded to include soybeans and other grains by the first quarter of 2021 on the Upper Illinois and Mississippi River System.
The intent is to expand the availability of this digital platform to the Pacific Northwest inland waterway system once the system is fully implemented and functional along the Mississippi River System. NGFDS also provides a mechanism the industry can use to pursue other digital solutions to enhance business efficiency going forward, a very exciting prospect. This, too, demonstrates the benefits of collaboration involving a dedicated group of industry volunteers and NGFA staff members who spent countless hours in developing and unveiling this program.
WG: Employee safety is such an important issue. How is NGFA helping commercial facilities and farmers prevent grain-related accidents and engulfment prevention?
Gordon: I could not agree more. I joined NGFA’s staff in the aftermath of a series of deadly grain elevator explosions at the Gulf during the winter of 1977-78, The NGFA responded by launching an unprecedented Fire and Explosion Research and Education Program in the late 1970s that resulted in the fundamental redesign of grain elevators to enhance safety – such as open headhouses and the use of venting, suppression and monitoring devices to protect against explosion hazards. That, in turn, led to a dramatic reduction in the number and severity of fires and explosions in this industry. The lives saved by that research and education effort remains perhaps the single most gratifying and meaningful accomplishment of NGFA during my career. I am so fortunate to have been on staff to witness this truly transformational success story.
NGFA’s focus on safety has not wavered since that time. Now, our big challenge is to bring about a similar reduction in the number of grain bin engulfments, the majority of which occur in farm bins. To further buttress our safety efforts, NGFA in 2016 created a new staff position – director of safety education and training – to focus exclusively on developing even more safety materials for use by the industry, including interactive web-based training programs and dozens of safety tip sheets. Most of this work has been funded through NGFA’s dynamic Foundation, and we provide free web access to anyone – including producers and nonmembers – who can use these materials. NGFA also established a cooperative alliance in 2017 with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to further advance our safety outreach. In January 2021, NGFA’s Foundation approved a new set of grain bin engulfment-prevention communications that our member companies can use both in their commercial facilities and share with their farmer-customers. We are also working with the firm Bushel to transmit safety messages directly to farmers through the Bushel app. NGFA is committed to replicating the fire and explosion-reduction success story – and saving more lives – when it comes to reducing engulfment incidents, as well.
WG: With a new presidential administration, what changes do you foresee in the federal government’s relationship with the industry?
Gordon: Under the Biden administration, NGFA anticipates that farm and agricultural policy will focus more on food and nutrition issues and how agriculture can contribute to addressing climate change. On trade, NGFA believes there will be a return to a more multilateral approach to address trade irritants with countries that the Trump administration tended to negotiate mostly bilaterally, including with China, as well as on much-needed World Trade Organization (WTO) reform.
NGFA also anticipates a significant effort to finally address infrastructure, including inland waterway locks and dam renovation and rural broadband. The new administration also likely will seek to revisit the corporate tax rate and the Republican-led Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, as well as initiate additional health insurance legislation. NGFA also anticipates more of a regulatory- and enforcement-first approach to workplace safety and environmental issues by OSHA, starting with issuance of a COVID-19 emergency temporary workplace safety standard. One of President Biden’s executive orders targets completing such a standard by March 15.
WG: What are your plans after you leave NGFA? Will you be fully retired, or will you still maintain a connection to the industry?
Gordon: I honestly have been too busy to give it a lot of thought. But our two children and their spouses live nearby, so I suspect my wife, Barbara, and I will be spending more quality time with them and spoiling our two wonderful grandchildren. We also have not had a lot of time to do mission work with our church and some of the causes we believe in and have supported financially, so I hope we can do more hands-on work for those, as well. We also enjoy traveling and sports (baseball in particular). In addition, I am a history buff, and hope to catch up on a lot of reading and touring of historic sites as soon as the pandemic subsides.
One thing I definitely am not going to do is meddle in NGFA’s business. The association has a great professional staff and a highly qualified new president and CEO coming on board. I look forward to being a fan from afar in witnessing the exciting new directions and future NGFA’s dedicated industry leaders and staff help bring about as they continue to serve this great and indispensable industry.