For outgoing MSA president Ronnie Russell, advocating for agriculture comes naturally.
If a group of accountants were to analyze Ronnie Russell’s year-end balance sheet, they’d likely categorize the proceeds from his sunflower patch as “budget dust,” a seemingly insignificant addition to the bottom-line of his farming operation. And in terms of dollars and cents, they’d be correct. For Ronnie, however, the value of those 40 acres goes beyond any profit he might realize.
“People love to drive out into the country and see the sunflowers,” says Ronnie, who lives in Richmond, Missouri, and farms in Ray County. “When the flowers bloom, people come form all over— driving hundreds of miles in some cases — just to stand in the field and take pictures. When the get here, they also get to see what we’re really doing as farmers. I’ve been doing it for five years now, and it’s really become a tool to talk to them about modern agriculture.”
Starting conversations about agriculture isa skill in which Ronnie has become well-versed. For more than a decade, he served on the Missouri Soybean Association board of directors, representing District One. He spent the past two years as the board’s president, working to ensure that soybean growers have a voice at the table when issues arise.
“Less than 2% of the population in the United States is directly involved in production agriculture, so it’s important that we farmers be proactive in addressing matters critical to our industry,” says Ronnie. “If we sit around and don’t speak up, someone else will, and it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.”
Passion for Production Ag
Born and raised in Ray County, Ronnie grew up on land that he still farms. His father, Rowland, ran a fertilizer business and farmed on the side.
“At one time, my dad was the largest independent fertilizer dealer in the state of Missouri,” Ronnie says. “He was one of the first to get into applying anhydrous ammonia back in about 1950.”
Involved with his family’s farming operation from an early age, Ronnie never really considered another profession. He did attend the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, earning a bachelor’s degree in agricultural education in 1981.
“I was heavily involved in FFA in high school, and I was always impressed with my vo-ag teachers,” he recalls. “It was the early ‘80s, and those were pretty tough years for farmers. Farming has always been in my blood, but I thought if things didn’t work out, I could be a teacher and still stay within agriculture.”
Fortunately, things did work out. While Ronnie worked in partnership with his father for the first few years, by the end of the 1980s, he was farming his own operation independently and slowly adding acreage. Today, he and his wife, Robin, manage roughly 1,700 acres, raising corn, soybeans, wheat, hay and, of course, sunflowers. The Russell’s also run a cow/calf operation and a retail commercial fertilizer business.
Lessons in Leadership
Ronnie attributes his foray into industry advocacy to his participation in the Missouri Agricultural Leadership of Tomorrow (ALOT) program when he was in his late 20s. The two-year leadership training program is intended for rural leaders and agricultural producers who have a passion to promote Missouri agriculture and strengthen their rural communities.
“I was part of the second ALOT class, and it was an eye-opening experience to see the political side of agriculture and the policies that directly affect what we do here on the farm on a day-to-day basis,” says Ronnie, who traveled to China as part of the program. “The entire experience really showed me that there’s so much more to agriculture than just production. When I was asked to fill an unexpired term on the MSA board some years later, I knew it was time to give back.”
In addition to volunteering with MSA, Ronnie is a member of the Missouri Corn Growers Association and Missouri Farm Bureau. He also serves on the Missouri Fertilizer Control Board, the Ray County Hospital Board of Trustees and American Soybean Association (ASA) Board of Directors.
“When farmers get up in the morning, we have a mental list of all we need to accomplish that day, but there are a lot of other issues that need taken care of beyond the farm,” Ronnie says. “We rely on these organizations and volunteers to take care of those things. There’s just so much that godson to support what the production guys do every day.”
One of those individuals working on behalf of producers is Wendy Brannen, ASA’s senior director of marketing and communications. When she joined the group as policy director in 2018, the nation’s soybean producers had been caught in the proverbial crossfire as a trade war erupted between China and the United States. Chinese-imposed tariffs on imported American soybeans had been increased from 3% to 25%overnight, causing soybean prices to plummet. She says grower-leaders like Ronnie were invaluable to ASA’s efforts to communicate how U.S. farmers were being impacted.
“We had reporters from every level – local, state, national and even international – seeking comment. Ronnie was ready and willing to go on camera to talk about the issue and how it was affecting things at the farm level,” Wendy says. “What really stands out to me about Ronnie is his eagerness to always pitch inland be there as needed.”
Wendy adds that Ronnie has participated in ASA’s “Leadership At Its Best” program, which shows his commitment and dedication to the industry and his role as a representative for his fellow soybean producers.
“Ronnie is great to work with because he has that keen sense of both the policy side as well as the communications side of what we do,” she says. “It’s truly a joy for us to have individuals like Ronnie who understand the importance of both.”
Stephen Censky, CEO of the American Soybean Association, agrees.
“Ronnie is a leader in the soy community not only at the state level but also nationally,” he says. “Weave relied upon him in his capacity both as a board member of the American Soybean Association and also as a member of its Governing Committee and leader on our Farm Policy Advocacy Team. Ronnie is a great advocate on soy policy issues and understands how they affect the prosperity of soybean growers. He always is willing to participate in any exercise for the greater good of the soy industry and agriculture.”
During his service to the soybean producers of Missouri, Ronnie has witnessed a number of significant victories for the industry. Foremost among them, he says, is market expansion and development for soybeans.
“We’ve really worked hard to expand worldwide markets for soybeans in conjunction with the USDA’s Foreign Market Development and Market Access programs,” Ronnie says. “In Southeast Asia, we’re building demand for high-quality protein for feeding fish in a growing aquaculture industry. Here athame, we’re working to develop new uses and new products that use soybean oil to replace petroleum.”
Recent issues that could impact a producer’s freedom to operate have been successfully thwarted on both the state and national levels. In 2019, for example, MSA’s efforts were key in the passage of legislation in Missouri that limits unnecessary regulations on livestock operations imposed by county governments. That same year, MSA helped secure final approval of Missouri’s Lake Numeric Nutrient Criteria Rule from the Environmental Protection Agency. This important state/federal policy win helped keep Missouri, and not EPA, in the lead role for developing and administering water-quality standards in the state.
“President Eisenhower once said, 'Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you're a thousand miles from the corn field,’” Ronnie says. “That’s still true today. We have to talk to our elected officials and agency administrators and educate them about how policies, rules and laws affect the day to day on the farm.”
Organizations like MSA and ASA also advocate for issues that aren’t exclusively agricultural. For instance, the organizations are in support of improvements to the nation’s transportation infrastructure — a key investment necessary for maintaining U.S. soy’s competitiveness in the world export market. These groups also testify about the impact of proposed changes to provisions in the Farm Bill and other legislation.
Ronnie notes that expansion of biodiesel production and consumption in Missouri is a key issue.
“Soybeans are the state’s top cash crop, and biodiesel is a renewable fuel that is clean-burning, sustainable and environmentally friendly,” he says. “We’re working very hard to develop standards for the state to promote increased use of biodiesel.”
Consumer education is equally important, adds the 64-year-old. He says the creation of the Centerfor Soy Innovation in Jefferson City, which opened in 2020, was a significant step toward showcasing the many uses for soybeans beyond food and fuel.
“We have a beautiful building where school children, legislators, industry leaders and others can come learn about everything that’s possible with soy, “Ronnie adds. “It’s exciting to think about how new developments such as Soyleic, our non-GMO high-oleic soybean variety, can be put in the spotlight thanks to this facility.”
While his term as MSA board president is ending, Ronnie will continue as a director representing the soybean growers of District One. He also will continue to represent the Show-Me State on the ASA board of directors.
“I’m so proud to be a part of MSA and work on behalf of Missouri’s soybean producers,” Ronnie says. “You know, these you don’t need a doctor every day or a lawyer every day or a dentist every day. But everybody needs a farmer at least three times a day, and to be part of that gives me a lot of pride.”