For someone who’s led a major state commodity organization for more than a quarter century, Rod Weinzierl may be one of the least best-known people in Illinois ag. That’s in large part because he does his job so well: pushing farmers forward.
“They’re our leaders, and it’s important for them to lead,” Weinzierl explains. “I’m not a get-out-and-speak and rah-rah person, so I’m not out competing against our leadership for that exposure.”
Weinzierl, who grew up on a farm near Stanford, Ill., went to work for the Cooperative Extension Service as an ag adviser in Tazewell County following graduation from Illinois State University. By 1988, he joined the Illinois Corn Growers Association as a market development director and was named executive director in 1993.
Each of those jobs kept him close to the home farm, which means he’s been able to continue operating it with his brother-in-law, raising 500 acres of corn and soybeans every year and leveraging his vacation days to plant and harvest. His oldest daughter, Gracie, began working into the operation this year and, like Dad, will balance the farm with her full-time job in Bloomington.
Here is Prairie Farmer’s interview with Weinzierl:
You’re the ultimate man-behind-the-scenes. What have you learned back there? That the hard part is trying to figure out the important stuff versus the less-important stuff. We’re really good at identifying stuff that needs to be done. We’re not very good at identifying stuff that no longer needs to be done. It’s a real challenge to prioritize, and to be able to bring the amount of resources to bear and not be spread too thin.
What kinds of resources? Volunteer time, staff time and money. You want to bring the right level of resources to bear on an issue that might be multiyear in scope. You have to get leadership to sort out what’s most important, then manage resources for a successful outcome on that priority.
Sorting out feels like the hard part. If you have 10 important things, it’s pretty easy to get farmers to identify the top three. When the board puts money behind something, that’s how you know it’s important. It’s hard to identify what not to do because you can end up with projects that either take time but not money, or money but not time.
How does your farm work inform your IL Corn work? I go to the FSA office and sign up the farm for the programs. I understand crop insurance and what doesn’t work. Then I can articulate what that is to experts like Dr. Schnitkey and Dr. Sherrick at the University of Illinois: “Hey, this isn’t working right; help us figure out what’s wrong.” They discover the loss ratios are too low, relative to how crop insurance should work. Doing a re-rating isn’t politically easy. So what’s a workaround? We created a new product called the Yield Trend Endorsement, which works around the underlying challenge. Now, that’s used by almost all the major crops in the U.S. They’re really smart people at U of I. I just became a conveyer of information and was able to speed up the communications to cut to the core of the issue.
And you do a lot of workarounds? That’s probably the farm kid in me. I’m pretty good at figuring a workaround for roadblocks. If something breaks, you’ve gotta diagnose what’s wrong and why and how to fix it. That’s kind of the same thing on these issues at IL Corn.
How have farmer-leaders changed in the past 26 years? When I started, we had one computer in the office — and then a fax machine with curly thermal paper. Then we migrated to email. Because communication is so different from 25 years ago, there’s a big change in knowledge. More knowledge means more articulate questions. Discussion around issues is much deeper. That’s all been good.
Is there a downside to so much more communication? It’s much easier to become distracted with so much information flowing around. It’s harder to stay focused on important stuff, and it’s easier to get caught up in current crisis instead of focus on what’s important long term. We have to look at whether there are variables we can affect versus participate in the issue but have difficulty making direct impact.
Photo courtesy of IL Corn
GOALS: Rod Weinzierl (center) says of IL Corn: “It’s about achieving the end result. And that’s how farmers are. Farming is how I am — it’s about getting to the end result.”
What are three characteristics of the best farmer-leaders you’ve worked with? First is that they have a network in their community. They’re not there as individualists — they’re representing their district. That helps us not chase things our members don’t value. And be likeable and respectable. Everybody has a different personality type, but people have to like you. That’s something you can’t train.
Second: good communications skills. That doesn’t mean be a great speaker in front of groups. Verbal and listening skills are most important. Written skills becoming more important. Because of email, communication and written skills are becoming more important, but not as important as listening.
Third: Be able to digest a lot of information and sift through and restate the important pieces. Issues are becoming more complex. Be able to identify core, important segments of that issue and why it’s important to the people they represent, then convey that to policymakers.
How do you build consensus in a big state? It’s not as hard as people might think. Trade is a big deal for the entire state and trade sets basis. You’ve got the Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois rivers, and the river system is the underlying foundation of basis. Upgrading the lock system will maintain trade, and if basis strengthens along the river, basis has to strengthen at ethanol plants, as well. So it ends up being important to everybody. Once commonalities are embedded, the rest of the conversation becomes a lot easier.
Transportation is a big deal. Most farmers understand that.
What do you admire in your friends? I like how we challenge each other. You learn a lot more when you’re challenged with other well-articulated ideas, than if everybody shakes their head yes. It either validates what you’re thinking or makes you pause.
“I try to instill in young people that it’s all about relationships. Cultivate them, be honest with them. Someone’s strongest belief in what you’re telling them is based on your relationship. You can’t buy that. You can’t short-circuit it. It takes time.”
“Nothing is easy. And there are usually multiple ways to get there.”
“There are fewer farmers and more people who don’t know anything about farming, every year. That takes more communications, making sure leaders are more articulate. We have to up our game every year, in Springfield and Washington.”
On getting stuff done:
“If you want to get big stuff done, you’ve got to have a diverse coalition effort.”
WEINZIERL IN BRIEF
Tractor? Red and green — and a little blue
Livestock? Hogs, and probably Hampshires
Team? St. Louis Cardinals
Best Decision? Marrying my wife, Kathy
Technology? Yield monitor
Author? Tom Clancy
Can’t Miss? Eric Snodgrass weather videos, on Monday and Thursday
Hobby? Grapes and winemaking, hops and beermaking, and woodworking
Family? Wife Kathy and daughters Gracie, Hannah and Claire — all of whom work in agriculture