Executive Profile: Craig Ratajczyk, CEO of Illinois Soybean Association
This article will be featured along with other articles addressing investment opportunities in agriculture technology and surrounding themes in the GAI Gazette, Volume 6, Issue 2, which will be distributed in conjunction with the 5th annual AgTech Nexus USA event, held in Chicago on July 22-23, 2019. Join us in Chicago to hear valuable insight and best practices from the expert speaking faculty. Learn more and register.
Craig Ratajczyk has been at the helm of the Illinois Soybean Association (ISA) since 2010, and leads on the premise that second place is not good enough. “I don’t recall anyone being happy with placing second. Illinois should be the number one soybean producing state, the global trendsetter for maximizing producer profitability through best business practices and market development programs, and the center for technology/innovation in soybean research. We can achieve that goal by remaining focused and committed to making a substantial and quantifiable difference,” Ratajczyk said when moving into the role of CEO.
The vision of ISA, which represents more than 43,000 soybean producers statewide who support the organization through a checkoff program, is to enable Illinois soybean producers to be the most knowledgeable, sustainable, and profitable in the global marketplace. As a testament to that, Illinois has led all U.S. states in soybean production in five of the last six years.
Ratajczyk’s invigorated focus on the benefits that Illinois producers can reap from successful incubation and implementation of agtech innovations led to the organization co-hosting GAI’s AgTech Nexus USA this year, which is a two-day conference where producers, investors, and innovators convene to discuss opportunities surrounding this compelling, nascent sector. The goal of this partnership, said Ratajczyk in a recent press release, is to “explore, examine and adopt the next generation of technological solutions that promise prosperity for our members, as well as make a sustainable and quantifiable difference in the sector as a whole.”
GAI News got the chance to better understand Ratajczyk’s thought leadership during a recent interview.
1. ISA is co-hosting AgTech Nexus USA this year in July. What was the motivation for bringing an event like this to Chicago?
We realized we have the opportunity and ability to convene stakeholders of the agtech ecosystem in the heartland, and present the unique assets available here. We have world-class academics, innovators and investors, farmers and farmland, and Chicago is a world-class city.
Having AgTech Nexus USA in the heartland, at this time of year, allows us to be farmer forward. We hear from agtech innovators and investors that they want more access and engagement with farmers, and here it is. There is an incredible amount of excitement in Illinois about our ability to bring key agtech players together here in the same room.
When we opened the ISA Chicago office two years ago it was part of our board’s efforts to be more competitive in promotion of the assets of the state… beyond our farmers and farmland. Chicago is one such asset for improving the ability of our producers to compete globally. ATN will introduce more of the agtech ecosystem to resources available here, including manufacturers, innovation hubs, and efficient transportation/market access.
2. Agtech has not traditionally seen associations out front. Why is ISA getting involved, and what is its role and mission in this endeavor?
Global leadership requires the embrace of new technology, as disruptive innovation creates value at the expense of existing systems. ISA needs to help producers have a current focus, but with a view of the future, away from the status quo and toward opportunities that will help them and their successors thrive in a changing world.
Multiple, well-established farming agronomic and business practices are being targeted for radical reinvention in the current wave of agtech. As this occurs, we’re working to ensure Illinois soybean producers are aware of, exposed to, and can position their operations to take advantage. We’re a significant soybean producing state in the U.S., and need to maintain our edge domestically and worldwide.
One way to do so is to help speed agtech acceptance at the producer level in Illinois, accelerating the value being created. Faster adoption of new technology and practices at the producer level means quicker realization of benefits, not only at the producer level but more broadly across the state.
Another priority is to make sure the benefits being derived are inclusive, and not at a cost to producers. Agtech will create new value and ISA can generate return on checkoff dollars by influencing the ecosystem to ensure producers capture some of that value along with investors and entrepreneurs.
Finally, an advantage of being an association is that we can bring major players from industry, institutions, investor groups, entrepreneurs, and farmers, around the same table to strengthen the agtech ecosystem in Illinois. Private industry, the university system, and legislative efforts are all underway, and as an advocate for the interests of producers we’re able to encourage and support these broader industry efforts.
3. Do you see broad adoption of ag technologies by ISA members? What can be done additionally to develop just-right innovation(s) and introduce them to producers?
Yes to the first question. Producers are already cooperating in the development and testing of digital and agronomic-based innovations on thousands of acres in Illinois.
To improve both value and pace of introductions we need to provide tech companies with the farm-level connections they seek for their product development. One crop cycle or perhaps a doublecrop situation in the Midwest limits both the number of modifications or versions of a technology that can be fielded in season, as well as opportunities for customer interaction. Understanding early in development the cost benefit to the ag producer, how the producer perceives the value being created, the ease of implementation/utilization, and then positioning that total value against other opportunity costs provides the feedback necessary to evaluate agtech feasibility.
And, education is key. To that end, ISA has created a program for the summer of 2019 to provide firsthand agtech exposure for producers, allowing them to evaluate innovations and familiarize themselves with the associated value propositions. In addition, the program provides participating agtech providers and financiers knowledge and insight into the current ag production system. This allows them to refine test programs already in-field, and also observe where inefficiencies exist, leading to new ag business/technology/operations models.
4. What value(s) does ISA see being created for producers as a result of increased agtech activity in Illinois?
First, exposure. We know we won’t get thousands of our producers to Silicon Valley or other agtech centers, but we can expand their mindset and vision by bringing the latest in agtech here. Working with universities, government, other agriculture associations, and non-profits will help in establishing Illinois as a Midwest agtech corridor that will attract further investment/development and advance the economic/financial/environmental viability of soy to Illinois ag producers.
Second, familiarity. Some of the value generated will be recognized, such as creating additional efficiencies within traditional agronomic and economic structures. However, participating in development and testing in areas such as sensor data, data analytics, precision breeding and direct marketing opportunities allow ISA producers to observe firsthand what’s required for brands to satisfy demands for transparency in how food/feed/fuel is produced.
Ultimately, increased activity and the accompanying education, exposure, and experience will help create an “adopt early mentality” among our producers, a mentality required for those producers and ISA to remain globally competitive.
5. What is the ecosystem for agtech like in the state of Illinois? Does ISA engage with other organizations -- associations, universities, etc. -- in its goal to increase agtech adoption?
Great organizations – from the agtech presence at the Research Park at University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana – to venture and private equity investors based in Chicago and downstate – to organizations like Illinois Corn, Illinois Pork, Illinois Beef, Illinois Farm Bureau, FARM Illinois, and others are all contributing to the developing ecosystem here. We have not had – yet – the coordinated efforts of some states, and that’s part of the reason to co-host this event – to help kick-off that dialog with everyone in the room.
Our view is that we add value by being a catalyst and convener – we can get the right people in the room to share the ideas that spark innovation – and we’re eager to work with any others that share our vision of a rapidly changing world and continued importance of the farmer.
6. What are some of the emerging ag technologies that ISA is excited about?
Everything related to sustainability, whether it’s a combination of AI and mechanical, optimizing what’s already in the field environment or creating novel new systems through synthetic biology.
An example of the first, AI and mechanical, already in the field on a trial basis are imaging, analytics, and application systems created to automate delivery of herbicides, insecticides, fertilizers, RNA applications, and more using the right source, at the right rate, at the right time, and in the right place. Less product used on a more precise basis means environmental and financial upsides.
Additionally, we see vastly increased utilization of autonomous vehicles, facilities, and farm equipment. Time and labor are major costs to any business and access to more efficient logistics such as autonomous grain trucks, container transports, grain elevators for delivery of grains 24/7/365, and field equipment (no one is in the equipment or sitting next to the field watching the equipment) will improve efficiencies as well as integrate data capture. Higher speed, higher capacity rural broadband networks organizations like Space X are examining will facilitate implementation of many of these technologies and directly impact producer profitability, to the positive.
For the second, optimizing what’s already in the field environment, microbiome work from companies like Indigo Ag (recently landing the No. 1 spot on the CNBC Disruptor 50 list for 2019) is recognized by farmers and investors for the ability to improve the soil environment and maximize plant performance. Increased yields and reduced chemical applications are being noticed, with acreage treated with Indigo technology expected to expand from 1 million acres in 2018 to 4 million acres in 2019.
land use. Marginal/contaminated soils could become more productive if genes with the ability to neutralize contaminants are created and expressed in the crop.Synthetic biology efforts can really be game changers, if farther out. In one instance researchers are looking at improving the efficiency level of photosynthesis within the plant, potentially improving plant health and yields with no additional inputs. A second area of exploration is related to land use. Marginal/contaminated soils could become more productive if genes with the ability to neutralize contaminants are created and expressed in the crop.
A common element in all of agtech is actionable data. We’ve had soil maps, weather patterns, yield history, and multiple other data sets for years but lacked effective tools to aggregate and analyze the numbers and turn them into useable information. Those platforms need to be more ubiquitous, with more competitive service providers. The digitization of agriculture, along with AI and eventually design intelligence is leading to a much more sustainable, competitive, and robust decision-making environment in our industry.
There are multiple reasons to anticipate tremendous societal benefits from agtech. The emerging winners in Illinois will have a common element of a solid financial proposition for ISA producers.
ABOUT CRAIG RATAJCZYK
Craig Ratajczyk started as CEO for the Illinois Soybean Association (ISA) in 2010. He has 22 years of experience in the soybean industry and 30 years of international experience. Prior to working for ISA, he worked for the United Soybean Board, American Soybean Association and the U.S. Soybean Export Council. He recently retired from the U.S. Navy after serving more than 29 years, in both active and in a reserve capacity, with the U.S. Navy Intelligence Community.
Ratajczyk is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale with a bachelor’s degree in international marketing and Russian language. He has an MBA from the American Graduate School of International Management “Thunderbird” and is an alumnus of the Harvard Business School.
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