Julius Schaaf has always looked ahead – as an Iowa corn farmer just starting through the association ranks, as co-chair of Corn 2012, as chairman of the U.S. Grains Council (USGC) and as a founder of MAIZALL. The Council recognized Schaaf for 15 years of sharing his forward thinking during the organization’s 16th International Marketing Conference and 59th Annual Membership Meeting earlier this year.
Schaaf credits Vic Miler, 2007 USGC chairman and a fellow farmer from Iowa, as an important influence in joining the organization. Equally influential was his participation with the 2004 Grain Export Mission (GEM) to Taiwan, Vietnam and China, which cemented his excitement about overseas markets.
“We saw firsthand the vast demand developing in Asia,” Schaaf said. “I returned from that trip with a real passion for the Council’s work – that trip really got me fired up.”
At the time, Taiwan was already a mature market for U.S. corn and was ramping up to use U.S. polylactic acid (PLA) for corn-based plastic. In Vietnam, he recalled seeing the rapid expansion of the livestock industry, feed mills and ports, a phenomenon also occurring in China.
“You couldn’t help but just be overwhelmed by the growth and the possibilities in that region at that time,” Schaaf said. “Feed mills were being built right and left. Hogs and chickens were being moved from backyard feeding operations into facilities. You could just see opportunity in every direction you looked.
“I came home really excited about the opportunities and the staff the Council had over there and how they perceived the growth of U.S. demand in that region. It was the tipping point for me getting involved.”
Schaaf eventually became chair of the Council’s Asia Advisory Team (A-team), which allowed him to stay involved in these markets and learn how the Council looks for opportunities in markets large and small throughout the world. That foresight included the development of the global market for distiller’s dried grains with solubles (DDGS), which Schaaf recalled being a big question when the ethanol industry was in its infancy.
“The Council stepped forward and said they thought they could move this product overseas, and it could be a great feedstuff,” Schaaf said. “They were exactly right, and with their leadership, the market just exploded. And now they are doing the same thing for ethanol.”
“It’s their foresight, their vision and their understanding of how world markets work and shift.”
Schaaf continued his leadership by co-chairing the Corn 2012 initiative in 2008, a corn industry project that laid the foundation for a closer working relationship between the Council and the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA). As part of this process, Schaaf got to know the staff and farmer leaders from the state corn organizations. When fellow Iowa corn farmer and friend Pam Johnson was elected into the leadership ranks at NCGA, the pair made a plan to help further those close ties through their friendship and leadership within their own respective organizations.
“Pam and I had such a good working relationship, and I was following Vic Miller’s footsteps,” Schaaf said. “We felt we could do a lot to bring those two groups together and really cement that relationship between the two groups.”
In 2014, Schaaf was elected USGC chairman. At the time, he told attendees at the USGC annual meeting: “The world is always changing. Markets are always changing. Today, competition is growing, and so are the opportunities. Our job is to figure out how to stay ahead of the changes.”
He and Johnson would also work together to help form MAIZALL – the international maize alliance – to help growers in the United States, Brazil and Argentina address common problems with non-tariff barriers in global markets, primarily related to biotechnology.
“We’re predicting the need for more corn in the future and the access to this technology is what is going to allow us to do it in a sustainable and safe manner,” Schaaf said. “There’s a strong justification for farmers, in the three countries that export 70 percent of corn, to continue to be involved.”
Schaaf said the role of the farmer voice in carrying that message is pivotal, especially as science and technology continue to develop new ways to improve crop yields for farmers not just in developed nations, but throughout the world.
“I think it’s very important that farmers are at the front of what the Council does, that the farmers go and talk about what they’re doing and make the point about their technology and its safety,” Schaaf said. “It means a lot coming from the people actually dealing with it on a day-to-day basis with their families.
“We’re just at the tip of that iceberg. With gene editing and the new techniques coming forward, this is going to be change on an exponential scale that is really going to get us where we need to be as far as production by 2030. When you farm for 40 years like me, that’s not very far away.”
Schaaf said he continues to look forward to the next 15 years of helping shape the future of the international grain trade as part of the Council’s continual effort to use past lessons to achieve success in future markets.
“The Council doesn’t dwell on the past; they use what they have learned and apply that to future demand growth and expansion,” Schaaf said. “The Council does a great job of looking forward and seeing how demand is going to shift and how we can be out in the front as a leader.”
About the U.S. Grains Council
The U.S. Grains Council develops export markets for U.S. barley, corn, sorghum and related products including distiller’s dried grains with solubles (DDGS) and ethanol. With full-time presence in 13 key markets and representatives in an additional 15 locations, the Council operates programs in more than 50 countries and the European Union. The Council believes exports are vital to global economic development and to U.S. agriculture’s profitability. Detailed information about the Council and its programs is online at www.grains.org.