Executive Profile: Polly Ruhland, United Soybean Board
During the COVID-19 pandemic, CEO of the United Soybean Board (USB) Polly Ruhland is focused on the future, working to identify areas of economic growth for nearly every aspect of the soybean industry. Whether it’s soy used for animal feed, protein for human use or a multitude of industrial products (e.g. biodiesel, asphalt, motor oil, shoes), the soy checkoff works on behalf of U.S. soybean farmers to advance agriculture’s sustainability through research, education, and promotion programs. Being the rising tide that floats all throughout the value chain, Ruhland, in concert with USB’s 78 farmer-directors, develops programs and partnerships that drive soybean innovation beyond the bushel and increase preference for U.S. soy.
For now, this means strategizing new ways and methods to reach its customers and drive demand. This is particularly true since the international market is U.S. soy’s largest customer – with exports accounting for about 60 percent of U.S. soy demand – yet operations around the globe are experiencing slowdowns due to the virus. And U.S. agriculture overall is already experiencing volatility with the trade uncertainty, particularly with China, the world’s largest importer of soybeans. But in a sector that saw roughly 3.56 billion bushels of U.S. soybeans produced in 2019, industry revenue is forecast to return to growth over the five years to 2024, according to statista.com. Additionally, in the Phase One trade deal, China has agreed to make purchases of $40 billion worth of U.S. agricultural goods over a two-year period.
“On behalf of our 515,000 U.S. soybean farmers, I want international soy customers to know we are here to partner with them to meet their needs by making an already great U.S. soybean, even better,” said Ruhland in a USSOY.org interview, noting that the USB’s focus for increasing global soybean demand is on innovation, sustainability, and bridging the gap between farmers and consumers.
Ruhland, at the helm of the USB since 2017, talks of exploring new markets and thinking outside the box to new products for what she calls one of agriculture’s only products that is food, feed, fiber, and fuel.
WIA Today talked to Ruhland from her home office in Saint Louis, Missouri, where she continues, actively and passionately, to lead the USB during this global pandemic.
1. While the future is clearly uncertain in today’s world, everyone will continue to need food and soy, which is a nutrient-dense protein ideal for the global population. What new opportunities do you see in the sector, and what is the immediate focus of the USB to keep U.S. soybeans as the second largest U.S. crop, and an internationally desired global food source?
Animal agriculture remains U.S. soy’s No. 1 customer, at home and abroad, so the checkoff works diligently to ensure that we provide a high-quality and nutritious product in the animal feed market. Similarly, soy is a direct source of protein for people, and protein demand will continue to skyrocket as our planet’s population burgeons. This means both plant and animal protein providers will have to work collaboratively to nourish the world. When you ask about new opportunities I see for the sector, industrial uses of soy are limitless with more than 1,000 soy-based products currently on the market. Offering a renewable and sustainable alternative, we could replace petroleum-based asphalts, motor oil, and other products with soy. The soy checkoff serves a catalyst for the market, and we’re laser focused on creating partnerships that increase the value and preference for U.S. soy.
2. Analysts note three major impacts to the soybean sector, relative to the coronavirus outbreak: lower demand due to limited food service industries in operation; a labor shortage; and shifting demand from restaurants to grocery stores. How are these challenges affecting USB’s farmers and mission?
COVID-19 is truly an unprecedented event in our history, but our U.S. soybean farmers stay resilient and still innovate during these challenging times. The soybean checkoff is focused on the future and identifying areas of economic growth for nearly every aspect of the soybean industry. Amidst this pandemic, farmers are proceeding with planting for the 2020 harvest and are committed to nourishing our global society.
USB in collaboration with the American Soybean Association and U.S. Soybean Export Council are working harder than ever on behalf of our soybean farmers to ensure a stable and safe soybean supply chain, from producer to processor through exporter and consumer. We’re also collaborating across U.S. soy on a joint Farm Stress campaign to offer tips and resources to help farmers stay healthy while dealing with COVID-19 and other farm hardships.
3. With the easing of tariffs, China has come through with additional orders for U.S. soybeans. Does this continue to look promising for the sector, especially with China having diversified its sources to the benefit of Brazil?
Our relationship with China is very strong. U.S. soy has been investing in China for 40 years to help livestock producers, food and feed manufacturers, and aquaculture producers improve their efficiencies while also providing a nutritious and sustainable product. We know our farmers can reliably deliver high-quality U.S. soy that our Chinese partners need. We anticipate that the purchase agreements reached in the Phase One trade deal will be honored.
4. With respect to fostering a more diverse workplace and women in ag, you have said “Those of us in positions of leadership must take personal responsibility to mentor individuals as well as speak openly about how we make even greater progress toward this goal.” Can you please explain how this has translated into action at the USB, and for women in ag?
With women today being principal operators of nearly 30 percent of U.S. farms, the ag sector continues to evolve to encompass a more diverse workforce. Specifically, on the United Soybean Board, we have several women serving soybean farmers, and two serve on our executive committee. The soy checkoff is committed to empowering female leadership, as well as other diverse voices, who provide fresh vision for our industry.
Polly Ruhland (@pollypencilplow) is CEO of the United Soybean Board. Prior to this, she was CEO of the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board. Early in her career, she was an agriculture journalist and editor.
Ruhland is an Eisenhower Fellow and a Nuffield Scholar, and is a certified mediator and holds professional credentials in the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts. Her interest in environmental partnerships led her to serve on several community agricultural land-use boards, and as a volunteer for American Farmland Trust. For 13 years, she was an ethics advisor regarding animal care and use at a private research facility in Colorado, and has also served on the editorial board and as a writer for Winds of Change. She currently serves on the advisory board for University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture, Lone Oaks Farm.
Ruhland holds a master’s degree from Colorado State University, where her research focused on agricultural education reform and strategic decision-making at farming cooperatives.
Hear more from Ruhland at the 2020 Women in Agribusiness Summit in Nashville, September 16-18, where she will be a featured speaker.