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Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association president talks herbicide regulations, tractor pulls and hard conversations.

Betty Haynes

March 13, 2024

7 Min Read
KJ Johnson, Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association president, and Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker
COMMUNICATION: KJ Johnson, Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association president (right), joins Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker at the 2023 Farm Progress Show. “In agriculture, we’re guilty of getting in our Republican or Democrat tribes. But if we can’t sit down and have hard conversations with people who think differently than us, we’ll never get anything done,” Johnson says. Betty Haynes

“Agriculture has always been in my blood,” says KJ Johnson, the third-generation farm kid turned president of the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association — and even more, everybody’s friend in Illinois ag.

Johnson hails from St. Joseph, Ill., where is family farms corn and soybeans in Champaign and Vermilion counties. Although Johnson always knew full-time farming wasn’t in the cards, he never expected the path his life has taken.

After graduating from high school, Johnson started at Parkland College. During his first semester there, he was offered a job on the campaign trail with Rep. Tim Johnson of the 15th Congressional District.

“On a whim, he took a chance on a kid just out of high school,” Johnson says, laughing. “I didn’t know any better and said yes.”

That “yes” would change the trajectory of Johnson’s life. He worked for the congressman for 12 years, earning degrees from Parkland and Illinois State University while getting a front seat to Illinois politics.

“It was a great opportunity, because it opened my eyes to a lot more than corn and soybeans grown in Champaign County,” Johnson says.

In 2013, Johnson was approached by Jean Payne, former IFCA president, about a lobbying position. Then in 2021 as Payne approached retirement, Johnson took over as IFCA president.

His farm upbringing undoubtedly makes Johnson the right person for the job, and he’s invited members of Congress and the Illinois General Assembly to the farm, to show how legislation would impact his family business.

“I’ve got a good ear to the ground on both the farm and retail world,” Johnson says. “I’m hoping to bring some commonsense legislation to Washington, D.C., and Springfield.”

Johnson says he’s stayed at IFCA for over a decade because of the folks he gets to represent.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about the people you meet and the friendships you build,” he says. “Agriculture is one of the greatest industries in the world — and the people are what make it so great.”

KJ Johnson and Congressman Rep. Tim Johnson of the 15th Congressional District

Johnson took some time to talk with Prairie Farmer:

What’s the hardest part of what you do? Agriculture has a great story to tell. As a society, we’re getting further away from the farm, so it’s more important than ever to explain what we do and why we do it. There are 20 different pieces of anti-pesticide legislation in Springfield right now.

How do you build consensus on divisive issues? The best advice I got before taking this job was from Jean Payne: “You’re going to talk to more people you disagree with than you actually agree with.”

It’s true — especially in Springfield and Washington, D.C., where your enemy today is your friend tomorrow. I might not agree with all the environmental groups, but if I have a listening ear, they’ll have a listening ear. Having a conversation to work through our differences is the first step to finding common ground.

In agriculture, we’re guilty of getting in our Republican or Democrat tribes. But if we can’t sit down and have hard conversations with people who think differently than us, we’ll never get anything done. Having an open mind will make you a better person and a better advocate for agriculture.

What keeps you up at night? The two issues that are front of mind in my role right now are the EPA herbicide strategy and the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy.

U.S. EPA was sued for violating the Endangered Species Act, and now they are going through what they call the “herbicide strategy.” Retailers and farmers don’t have a true understanding of how much the herbicide strategy and ESA could affect our livelihood. Every pesticide will be re-reviewed under the ESA. We’re trying to decipher what this means for herbicide application, because about 900 out of the 1,600 threatened and endangered species are plants, not animals.

In 2023, the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy biennial report was released. Although we’re moving in the right direction, we have a long way to hit the 45% reduction in nutrient loss goal by 2025. I normally tell farmers: Not every acre has to go into a cover crop or reduced tillage, but it’s helpful to the strategy for farmers to try cover crops, reduced tillage on at least one field. If we make small changes now, we can make a bigger impact later to avoid regulatory enforcement in nutrient loss and fertilizer application in 2026, 2027 and beyond.

What’s the best way for farmers to stay plugged into these issues? Get involved in an association — IFCA, Illinois Farm Bureau, IL Corn, Illinois Soybean, Illinois Beef or Illinois Pork. We’re your first line of defense in Springfield and Washington, D.C., to fend off anti-ag legislation.

 KJ Johnson behind a podium and speaking into a microphone

And what about tractor pulling? My father and uncle entered me in my first tractor pull at age 5 in Royal, Ill., and I’ve been hooked ever since. When I graduated high school, my uncle and dad bought my brothers and me a 1466 International, or the model of tractor they started pulling with. Now, 24 years later, we’ve made “Built 4 Business” to what it is today. It’s been a fun project for our family. Some of my best memories are late nights in the shop, working on the tractor together with my dad, uncle, brothers and sons. We’ve also teamed up with the Illinois Soybean Association to help promote biodiesel because “Built 4 Business” runs on 100% biodiesel.

What is your most treasured possession? The original 1466 International that my dad and uncle bought new and started pulling with. They sold it in the ’80s, but we found it and had it restored for this year’s Half Century of Progress. I had the great opportunity to drive it into the Farm Progress Show this year.

What achievement are you most proud of? During my time at IFCA, we’ve been able to defend against any legislation that would truly hurt farmers and ag retailers.

What advice would you give to future generations? There are people in life you won’t agree with, but never burn a bridge with them and always have an open line of communication.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? Sitting in the planter or combine with my wife and two sons, or being at a tractor pull in the summer.

What is the quality you admire most in a person? Honesty.

What motivates you? Trying to figure out the best way to move the ball forward for agriculture.

Where is your favorite spot in the world? The farm shop, tinkering on something with my dad, brothers and sons.

How do you spend your free time? What free time?

Which words or phrases do you most overuse? It is what it is.

Best live performance? Kenny Chesney back in the day.

Who is your favorite artist or band? Eric Church.

What is your greatest fear? Failure.

Anna, Kambryn, Kace, Beckett and KJ Johnson stand in front of their Built 4 Business International pulling tractor

Johnson in brief

Favorite tractor? My grandfather once said, “When you get to the pearly gates, the good Lord’s going to be sitting on a 1206 Farmall tractor.”
Truck? ’90s Chevy
Technology? I’m an Android guy.
Team? St. Louis Cardinals, for sure
Book? The Bible or “Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson”
Best decision? Marrying my wife
Family? Wife Anna; son Kace, 5; son Beckett, 3; daughter Kambryn, 9 months

About the Author(s)

Betty Haynes

Betty Haynes is the associate editor of Prairie Farmer. She grew up on a Menard County, Ill., farm and graduated from the University of Missouri. Most recently, Betty worked for the Illinois Beef Association, entirely managing and editing its publication.

She and her husband, Dan, raise corn, soybeans and cattle with her family near Oakford , Ill., and are parents to Clare.

Betty won the 2023 Andy Markwart Horizon Award, 2022 Emerging Writer, and received Master Writer designation from the Ag Communicators Network. She was also selected as a 2023 Young Leader by the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists.

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