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Building Business for Beans

Tony Stafford standing next to a Soyleic sign in a field
By Jason Jenkins, Mill Creek Communications
After overseeing domestic and international market development for Missouri soybeans since 2014, Tony Stafford calls it a career. 

For most Americans, the standard U.S. passport is more than sufficient for a decade of globetrotting. Inside the pocket-sized booklet — with the U.S. coat of arms embossed in gold on its distinctive dark blue cover — travelers have 17 blank pages for stamping by border agents around the world. Yet, despite trips made for business, pleasure or both, many passport holders will see their travel documents expire with pages left unused. 

Tony Stafford isn’t one of them. 

“Prior to this job, I had very few stamps in my passport, but international travel has been a big part of what I’ve done, at least prior to COVID-19,” says Tony, who officially retired Aug. 31 after nearly seven years as director of business development and new markets for the Missouri Soybean Association and Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council.  

“In less than four years, I actually ran out of pages in my passport and had to get a new one. It wasn’t even close to expiring.”

Tony joined the soybean team in the fall of 2014 and immediately began traversing the globe on behalf of Missouri’s soybean producers. The list of nations he’s visited is extensive: Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka and South Africa, to name a few. With every trip, he worked alongside industry partners to develop new relationships and new markets for the Show-Me State’s top crop.  

One of the ‘Hicks from the Sticks’  

It’s been a journey Tony couldn’t have imagined as a country kid growing up in southwest Missouri.  

“I was born and raised on a diversified farm outside of Ava,” he says. “We started out as a dairy farm, and then my folks decided they’d like to have a day off. They got into broilers, then turkeys and eventually alfalfa.” 

Tony attended school at Bradleyville, a tiny district located in Taney County. “When I graduated, there were 91 kids in the whole school, from first grade through 12th grade,” he says. “There were 13 in my senior class.” 

Though small, Bradleyville made Missouri sports history during Tony’s tenure. He was a guard on the boys’ basketball team in 1967 that captured the Class S state championship, losing only one game. The next season, the team went undefeated, repeating as champions. In all, the Eagles won 64 consecutive games — a state high school record that still stands more than a half-century later. 

“My senior year, we beat the team from Parkview High, one of the bigger schools in Springfield, during a tournament over Christmas break,” Tony recalls. “In the newspaper the following day, they called us the ‘Hicks from the Sticks.’ A guy named Leon Combs, who was from Bradleyville, wrote a book about our team, and that’s what he titled it, ‘Bradleyville Basketball, the Hicks from the Sticks.’” 

In 2001, the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame inducted the 1967 and 1968 Bradleyville Eagles basketball teams. That year’s class also included NFL running back Marcus Allen and University of Missouri legend Don Faurot. 

Air Force and Agriculture 

After graduating high school in 1967, Tony enrolled at Missouri State University for one year before joining the U.S. Air Force in 1968. His father, Harry, had served during World War II as a B-17 pilot.  

“I spent four years in the Air Force, and I was overseas for three and a half of those years,” he says. “It was the Vietnam era, but I split my time between Japan and Thailand, which is where I met my wife, Chia. We’ve been married 51 years.” 

Once his active military duty ended, Tony returned to southwest Missouri to complete a degree in agricultural economics. His service to his nation didn’t end, however. Tony would spend more than 20 years with Missouri Army National Guard, serving in various capacities. During Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s, his unit was deployed, and he spent six months in Saudi Arabia.  

After college, Tony first found employment with MFA Incorporated. He completed the co-op’s management training program and would oversee the exchanges in Fulton and Cedar City, just across the river from Jefferson City.  

“I left MFA to work for an agribusiness insurance company that wrote policies for facilities such as grain elevators, feed mills and fertilizer plants,” he says. “When the company quit doing business in Missouri, I had the option of moving to Iowa, but I didn’t want to. That’s when I came to work for the Missouri Department of Agriculture.” 

2 men standing next to a gas pump display

Adding Value for Farmers 

Tony’s first position with the department was as an auditor for Grain Regulatory Services, a program that licenses, bonds and audits grain warehouses and grain dealers, providing protection to the state’s producers in case of insolvency. 

“I would actually go out to elevators and physically measure the grain to verify that the inventory matched the records,” Tony says. “I was there during some real tough times where we had to take possession of some elevators that weren’t in compliance with the law. We sold the grain and tried to recoup any losses we could for farmers.”  

Tony would move from grain auditing to what is now known as the Missouri Agricultural and Small Business Development Authority (MASBDA), eventually retiring as the program’s executive director in 2014. Overseen by a commission of citizens appointed by the governor, the authority administers programs that provide capital to Missouri farmers and agribusinesses. through grants, loans, loan guarantees and tax credits. 

“When I started with the authority, we had three programs: the beginning farmer loan program, an animal waste loan program and the alternative ag program,” Tony recalls. “When I left, we had grown to 12 programs. We always had the satisfaction of knowing that we’d helped someone move their farm or business forward.” 

Tony’s time at the authority would coincide with the development of the biofuels industry in Missouri. “Whether it was an ethanol plant or a biodiesel facility, we were involved on the front end of all of those,” he adds.  

Often, the authority provided grants to fund feasibility studies to a farmer or group of farmers who had an idea they thought could be profitable. Sometimes, these studies would reveal a viable business opportunity; however, this wasn’t always the case. In these instances, Tony says he also took pride in knowing his team had saved farmers from losing hard-earned money to a poor investment.  

“In the Alternative Loan Program, we denied way more applications than we approved trying to protect producers from pyramid schemes and fly-bynight situations,” he says. “So many of them required pretty intense labor, and they just didn’t turn out to be the moneymaker that people were promised.” 

Beyond ethanol and biodiesel, Tony recounts many success stories through the years. He points out agribusinesses such as Shatto Milk Co. in Osborn and Martin Rice Co. in Bernie that, with MASBDA assistance, transformed commodities like raw milk and rice into products that moved their family operations up the value chain. 

“My job also gave me a chance to learn about different types of agriculture than what I knew growing up,” Tony says. “Everything from pecans and earthworms to organic cotton, popcorn and aquaculture. It’s easy to feel good about the successes. To know that you helped someone better themselves is pretty satisfying.” 

When Beans Beckon 

After 29 years with the state, Tony was already eligible to retire when his phone rang in 2014. It was Gary Wheeler, who had only months before he assumed the helm as executive director and CEO with the Missouri soybean organizations.  

“Gary had actually worked for me at MASBDA earlier in his career, and we had kept in touch,” Tony says. “We went to lunch one day, and he offered me the job as the director of business development. I thought it sounded like a terrific opportunity to try something different, so I accepted.” 

Aside from filling up his passport, Tony has worked tirelessly the past seven years to create new markets and new uses for soybeans alongside industry partners, including the United Soybean Board, the United States Soybean Export Council and the American Soybean Association. He admits that while traveling halfway around the world can be brutal, his international work has been the highlight in his position. 

“The goal was to sell more soybeans, right? In places like Cambodia and Vietnam where we’ve provided some funding for aquaculture projects, you can see the fruits of your labor,” Tony says. “They realize the value of high-quality soybean meal and how it increases their production efficiency.” 

Tony adds that he also has enjoyed watching soybean board members gain a better appreciation for who buys the crop they produce. “For some, it was kind of an eyeopener, and I think they had a better idea of their responsibility as board members representing Missouri farmers,” he says. 

At 72 years old, Tony says he’s looking forward to the next chapter in his life. He and Chia enjoy riding motorcycles, target shooting and spending time with their five grandchildren and one great-grandchild. They also enjoy traveling and plan to spend time in Chia’s native Thailand, perhaps even wintering there. 

“When I renewed my passport, I ordered the bigger one with extra pages, so we’re good for a little while,” he says with a laugh. 

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