May 22, 2022

Payne reflects on IFCA leadership role

Retiring after 17 years as association president

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Regulations, consolidations, state budget cuts, training requirements and environmental concerns are only a snapshot of issues Jean Payne took head-on during her two-plus decades at the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association.

Through all of the challenges, Payne, who retired March 31 after 17 years as IFCA president and 23 years with the organization, has been there to stay the course.

KJ Johnson was named IFCA interim president effective April 1. In this role, Johnson will serve as CEO. He previously served as the association’s director of governmental affairs for eight years.

“I never had a job with IFCA. I had a career that I loved, working for people and companies who I was always extremely proud to represent,” Payne said.

Payne and her husband, Rae, have been planning for retirement for a long time and look forward to spending time at their lake home in Wisconsin’s Northwoods and with family.

“It’s nice when you can fulfill your dreams and leave everything in good shape, too. It’s a great feeling,” she added.

The road to leading the organization that assists and represents the crop production supply and service industry was not a direct route.

“It’s nice when you can fulfill your dreams and leave everything in good shape, too.”

—  Jean Payne, former president, Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association

Payne grew up in Brussels, a southwestern Illinois town in Calhoun County. Her father was a dentist, and there were 27 students in her high school graduating class.

After graduation she wanted to be a high school English teacher and enrolled at Illinois State University. That’s where she met the “Y” in the road.

“I got into the education curriculum and decided it wasn’t for me. But being someone who was paying my own way through college I didn’t want to change my major and start doing something different, so I just majored in English,” Payne said.

“I really got lucky. Like most kids right out of college, you start farming your résumé out for anybody who will hire you. I didn’t have any specific industry in mind, but I got a job at Growmark in their Human Resources Department in 1988.”

That was her first lesson about the agriculture industry. She then moved into the Growmark’s regulations division.

“My emphasis in college was technical writing. So, when you’re reading an 80-page regulation about hazardous material and have to try to put it into a one-page document for people to understand so they can comply with it, that’s really where I sort of found my passion — trying to take complicated regulatory issues and make them simple for the ag retailers to understand,” she said.

She eventually became involved in lobbying with Growmark and through that role became a member of IFCA’s Legislative and Regulatory Committee in the mid-1990s.

IFCA Calls

Payne was at Growmark for 11 years and then IFCA called to offer her a position.

“They knew that Lloyd Burling, who had been the only president of IFCA since the organization started in 1965, was going to be retiring in the next five to seven years and wanted me to come on board and be their government relations expert, help with regulation and legislation, but then if it worked out, work my way into that job,” she explained.

She was named IFCA president in 2004.

The agriculture industry has dramatically changed during Payne’s career, led by consolidations and technological advancements.

“There was a very profound thing said to me when they offered me the job to be president. One of the board of directors, John Foster of Peine Inc., a family-owned retail business in Minier, said at the time, ‘Jean, by the time you retire there will probably only be a handful of ag retail companies left,’” Payne recalled.

“I thought, well, that can’t possibly, because at the time I started there were many, many independent family-owned ag retail business. Of course, there were also cooperatives like the FS system and we had Crop Production Services and others, but the majority of the industry was family-owned.

“That has changed substantially to the point that when I called John Foster to tell him I was retiring and I told him he was right. The big have definitely gotten bigger and the family-owned independent ag retailer is very much an endangered species.

“The independent ag retailers were the people who really started IFCA. The Virgil Harbachs and the Glen Brandts of the world were the people that thought we needed an association to help represent them, because they were small business people, and they needed someone to help them with regulations, put on education programs, do networking for the industry, represent them at the capitol, have ammonia safety programs. IFCA was started to help those small businesses.

“We’ve had to adjust a lot as our members get bigger and become so integrated. Now the nutrient system owns manufacturing and distribution all the way down to retail.

“On the manufacturing side, when I started we had about 11 chemical companies and eight fertilizer manufacturers and now we’re down to like four and four. It’s hard as an association because we get our revenue from membership dues and membership events. We don’t have an automatic checkoff that flows into IFCA for every ton of fertilizer or gallon of chemical sold. So, we have to really rely on voluntary contributions and support from the industry.”


There have been many challenges and successes for the organization and Payne was tossed into the fire in her first years as president.

During the first three years IFCA had to lobby against a proposed sales tax on agricultural inputs, followed the next year by a proposal to tax gross receipts rather than net revenue and then a second-round fight against another proposal to tax ag inputs.

“We prevailed and we had wonderful coalitions with other ag groups. I just remember thinking, what have I gotten myself into,” Payne said.

Then there was the organization’s name itself.

“In the era of political correctness there were many times people would say, ‘Why don’t you name it something so you don’t have the word chemicals in there?’ I give our board credit because we have always been proud of what we do because it is such an essential part of agriculture,” Payne noted.

“We do need fertilizers and pesticides and our job is to be the stewardship organization that assures the public that we are handling these safely, we have training, we have quality people, we care about our neighbors, we care about our customers.

“The thing that’s been most rewarding for me is with the blessing of our board of directors I’ve always been able to go out there and be on the forefront of stewardship and visit with consumer groups and non-ag groups about what we do and all of the programs we have in place to assure judicious use of fertilizers, that we’re not overusing them, that we’re not using pesticides when we don’t need to and when we do use them we apply them correctly with certified and trained people.

“There is a lot of regulatory oversight and a lot of licensing certification requirements in our industry. It’s been a real joy to help our members with all of those regulations so we can continue to very proud about how we handle these products.”

Funding Secured

Through the efforts of Payne, the IFCA board and membership and other partners, the Illinois Nutrient Research and Education Council was approved by the Illinois General Assembly and started in 2012.

Funded by a 75-cent per ton assessment on bulk fertilizer in Illinois, NREC provides financial support for nutrient research and education programs to ensure the discover and adoption of practices that address environmental concerns, optimize nutrient use efficiency and ensure soil fertility.

Illinois previously funded nutrient research and education using proceeds from a designated tonnage fee that funded the Fertilizer Research and Education Council within the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

However, since 2004 the FREC fund had been diverted to the state’s General Revenue Fund and other programs. NREC funds are separate and cannot be moved to other state funds.

“The beauty of that was we were going to spend agriculture’s own money to address these challenges. We were not asking the taxpayers to do it. We were not asking the federal or state government to solve this for us. We wanted to do it ourselves. That’s how we got the legislature to support that and to give us a fund that couldn’t be swept and used by the state for other purposes,” Payne explained.

“That bill kind of stands alone as a shining example as they’re haven’t been too many people who managed to do that, but it was because we took ownership of the water quality issue, wanted to solve it, and brought the environmental groups to the table and the environmental groups helps us pass that piece of legislation.”

Drive Time

Another success story that Payne is proud of was the hours of service exemption to ensure ag inputs can get where they need to be without driving time restrictions.

“It was about an eight-year battle at the federal level making the case with statute and regulation and then at the state level,” she said.

“I just remember every single hurdle that we had to jump, and we had to jump through about eight different ones to finally get that done. And then there were times people challenged it through reinterpretation, ‘Well, that’s not what that really means, we don’t think you can do this now.’ And we had to fight those policy battles again. Eventually we prevailed. We had so much support from Illinois Department of Transportation and Illinois State Police. I just can’t thank them enough because they had to be OK with it, too.

“To me, knowing that we can get fertilizer, chemical and seed to and from the farm, to and from our distribution points between retail and supply chain in a timely manner every spring and fall and do it safely and not have to fill out driver logs for all of our ag retail drivers, I felt like I was able to make everybody’s daily life easier, and less filled with paperwork and bureaucracy and onerous regulation.

“That’s one of the things that I feel most proud about because every single ag retailer and farmer benefited from that in ways that you really can’t put a dollar sign on.”


Training and safety have always been a major focus of IFCA and that effort was stepped up exponentially over the past several years with the addition of the Asmark Institute and adjacent outdoor ammonia training course next to IFCA headquarters.

“We’ve always had a full-time person on staff at IFCA who focuses on ammonia and fertilizer safety, and I think our emphasis on that has enabled us to still have a very vibrant industry when it comes to anhydrous ammonia. It’s never easy,” Payne said.

“If there’s any one single product that I spent a majority of my time dealing with issues on it has to be anhydrous ammonia. Whether it’s the fall application season and questions about the environmental efficacy of that or whether it was transportation and accidents that would happen from time to time, injuries or whatever.

“When we built the training center with the Asmark Institute, that was a terrific moment to have the best ammonia training course in North America located right behind the IFCA office, and then adding that applicator training school next to it. That took a lot of behind-the-scenes work and commitment from a lot of people.

“But I always felt like if the state Department of Ag wasn’t able to do the training down the road because they don’t have the people to do it or the agency to do it, then at least we have the facility and the capability to do it within the industry.”

Tom Doran

Tom Doran

Field Editor