With 200-plus people in attendance at a reception on Mackinaw Island, everyone held a glass and toasted Jim Byrum for his 25 years of service as president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association. But not before he was roasted by several industry leaders who took the podium to tell funny stories and throw a few lighthearted jabs.
The event was hosted in connection with the annual MABA Outlook Conference on Sept. 14-15.
Byrum, an Onondaga, Mich., resident who heads MABA’s East Lansing office, has announced his plans to retire Feb. 14. “I’m 66 years old, and it’s time,” he said. “I’ve got other things to do.”
Being busy is a mainstay for Byrum, many roasters noted.
While the tune from the movie "Ghostbusters" was playing, Randy Gordon from the National Grain and Feed Association had the room rolling by holding up a poster of Byrum wearing a Ghostbusters sweater with the words, “Who ya gonna call … Jim Byrum.”
Gordon cited many instances where he’s called on Byrum’s expertise and opinion. At the end of each account, he held up the poster and yelled out, “Who ya gonna call?” and the audience boisterously responded, “Jim Byrum.”
Allison Brink, executive director of Michigan Allied Poultry Industries, recounted a time when she interned at MABA under Byrum. She noted how he provided opportunities to be in places and to engage with some amazing people. And as her career grew, Byrum would check in with her.
“We always stayed connected. That doesn't mean we always got along — hence the mop,” she added, while holding up a mop. “In college, I worked at the MABA office and there was an incident with a flying mop!”
In his position, Byrum advocated for the association’s more than 400 members who represent virtually every segment of the agriculture industry, including feed and agronomy suppliers, grain handlers, renewable fuel producers, transportation companies, and other suppliers and companies involved in agriculture.
His leadership ability was lauded early on, earning a coveted Michigan Star State Farmer award in 1971 before graduating from Michigan State University in 1973 with a degree in public affairs management in the College of Agriculture.
For four years, he was a sales representative for Monsanto just as Roundup Ready herbicide was being rolled out. He later worked as executive secretary to the Michigan Bean Commission for 14 years. He was the state executive director for the USDA Farm Service Agency for two years before taking the MABA position in 1995.
He’s also responsible for the startup of six hardware stores in Charlotte, Leslie, Stockbridge, Holt, Howell and Pinckney, Mich.
Byrum is well known for his connections in both the state and federal government and the relationships he’s helped build between MABA members and policymakers. “It was about bringing a broader perspective and understanding of the industry," he said.
He hopes he’s challenged people to think out of the box and to not accept traditional mantras — to be forward-thinking. He’s made many visits abroad to expand markets. “I’ve got more than 200 international contacts in my cellphone,” he said.
But above all, he’s most proud of the Michigan Agri-Business Leader Program, which was started in 2008 and has had 97 participants to date. “It’s about the next generation, about bringing different sectors of agriculture together and building leadership," he said.
The three-session program includes visits to Washington, D.C., to engage policymakers.
Michigan Farmer asked a few industry leaders to share their experiences with Byrum:
Ward Forquer of Oakley Fertilizer and vice president of Potash & Business Development for Michigan Potash & Salt Co. Forquer was on the selection committee almost 25 years ago to fill the vacancy left by Ron Stebbins to run MABA. He said he did not know Byrum and had never met him before that first interview. “After that first interview, I thought what a cocky, arrogant individual. I was not impressed.”
Another meeting was scheduled and, “It was then I began to appreciate what Jim Byrum could bring to the table, and I supported the vote to hire him as our new president of the MABA.”
On a trip to D.C. to meet with legislators, Forquer said Byrum never needed a map to find various buildings and people. “We walked fast, and we would meet directly with our senators and representatives, unlike others who met with their representative’s aides. That was my first inkling as to the political connections Jim brought to the table. It was very impressive. Jim has led MABA to become the most watched, listened to, respected state agriculture association in the United States.”
Jim Sheppard, manager of food and feed for Legacy Seed Companies. Sheppard said a lot of folks don't know about Byrum’s sense of humor. At a “get acquainted” meeting, MABA members, legislators and several leaders from Michigan State University met at the Exchange restaurant in downtown Lansing.
The new MSU dean asked Byrum where the restroom was located. “Jim directed him through a side door where dance music with a good bass rhythm was playing,” Sheppard explained. “The dean was gone for quite a while before he reentered with a funny expression. He said he searched all over the upstairs level but didn't find the restroom. Jim, with straight face, apologized for mistakenly sending him to the balcony overlooking the dance floor at Omar's (strip club) and directed him to the correct door.”
Jim Howe, president and CEO of Star of the West Milling. Howe said he knew Byrum first by reputation, as a Monsanto sales rep in the Saginaw Valley. “I would hear from the local farmers about this Byrum guy and how good he was,” said Howe, who got to know Byrum better at the Michigan Bean Commission. “I was now getting to meet this legend face to face, and to be honest, he wasn’t near as tall as I was expecting."
“In 1996, we had our very first encounter with vomitoxin in wheat,” Howe said. "We knew it was a food safety concern and the entire state was inflamed with the issue. We had a crop that wasn’t marketable. We had farmers who were beyond disappointed to have a crop that they had invested time and money to produce and was not going to bring in enough money to even come close to covering expenses. There wasn’t crop insurance to cover the farmer either. This was a flat out a train wreck of a disaster for all involved. The farmers were not getting paid, and the mills couldn’t use the wheat due to the unacceptable quality.”
Howe said Byrum rallied researchers from around the globe and worked to get all stakeholders on the same page, and politicians – from Lansing to Washington, D.C. — to get money for research on chemistry, breeding and cultural practices. He also worked to get the Risk Management Agency to recognize the problem as an insurable item through the federal crop insurance program.
“He also created many valuable forums that could be used as educational opportunities for both industry and farmers to get out in front of this issue,” Howe said. “The potential is still looming every year, and I was expecting to see another paralyzing event in this year’s wheat crop, but due to getting things in order over 20 years ago, it was not near the issue it might have been otherwise.”
Howe says congressmen will deviate from their schedules to meet with Byrum. “His fingerprints are on many farm bills,” he said.
“I think one of Jim’s greatest legacies is the leadership program he developed for both young, and maybe not so young, as to how to get your message through and the process that works best.”
Phil Schmiege former branch manager for Helena Chemical Co. for 27 years in Saginaw. Schmiege, who retired in 2014, said he’s known Byrum since 1964, when they were both on the board for the Michigan Junior Hereford Association.
“I showed sheep with Jim and his brothers when I was in college as contract showman,” Schmiege said. “Jim came to me when I worked for the Production Credit Association in Caro, asking for help with a list of large farmers to promote Monsanto products. There was a large meeting with lots of acres represented.”
Since 1977, Schmiege has been involved with the Pesticide Association, the Michigan Plant Food Council, and Michigan Grain and Agri Dealers — now called MABA as one association. He served as board chairman in 1998.
“Jim has been very successful in promoting the MABA to be one of the strongest ag associations in the country,” Schmiege said. “With less and less legislators having an ag background, Jim has done a great job getting the most out of people for support of the MABA and the ag industry. He and his staff have been instrumental in establishing the area ag clubs, and also the MABA leadership council.”
Schmiege saidone of Byrum’s key strengths is his “networking” to get support and involvement for MABA activities from all facets of the agriculture industry.