Editor’s Note: AgriNews is celebrating its anniversary by reviewing some of the top agricultural issues over the past 45 years.
KIRKWOOD, Ill. — His journey started on a farm in rural western Illinois. Seven decades later, he has traveled to various foreign countries, has been in the room at some of the most momentous times in agriculture and has seen some of the best and most difficult years in U.S. agriculture in modern times.
Wendell Shauman looks back on his career in agriculture with the awe of that farm kid in Warren County.
“I’ve been to 38 countries. I started out in a one-room schoolhouse. Who does that?” he said.
Shauman acknowledges the effort and hard work it took all along the way, along with what he calls “dumb luck.”
“I have just been incredibly lucky in my life, of having the right people in the right place at the right time,” he said.
Wendell and his wife, Janet, returned to farm with his parents in 1975. To mark 45 years of Illinois AgriNews, Wendell took us on a journey through his career in farming, agriculture and ag organizations and talked about the past, present and future of U.S. agriculture.
What have been the major changes in farming over your career as a farmer?
“The way we farm started changing drastically. Back then, we were all pulling moldboard plows and chisel plows were just starting to become popular. When I came home to farm in 1975, we were plowing everything.
“You worked the ground, you disked stalks in, then you disked or field cultivated in the spring. We did all this tillage. I was a little slow to come to it, but I am all no-till now.
“Herbicides have become more and more important. Part of all that tillage we did was to kill weeds. There weren’t a lot of herbicide options available then, probably atrazine and 2,4-D, but that had limits, too.
“When other herbicides started coming in, that was a revolution in how you controlled weeds. If you could control weeds, you could increase yield.
“We had cows. We had hogs. You had pasture. Only half your farm was row crops. You had some oats. You had some hay. That has totally changed.”
What have been two of the most significant drivers of U.S. agriculture in your career?
“World trade really opened up. I went from the Illinois Corn Marketing Board onto U.S. Grains Council and I have stayed involved with them.
“Our job is to promote corn, barley, sorghum and, now, ethanol and DDG, exports around the world. That was all just developing in the 1970s. Developing those markets helped get rid of some of the surpluses of grain.
“In the 1990s, we went out to Washington, D.C., and lobbied for the North American Free Trade Agreement. We were in the West Wing of the White House and we all had our pins on promoting NAFTA. We were visiting senators’ and congressmen’s offices. But the increase in trade was a big deal, that really got us out of a hole.
“The other thing is the development of ethanol and the people who had the foresight to create the ethanol industry. Forty percent of our corn crop now goes into ethanol.
“We needed a new demand. We needed a new market. The price of corn was just too low for anybody to make any money.
“’What would the price of corn be if that market went away?’ That is my comment to (President Joe) Biden and these guys who say everything is going to be electric. I don’t think that is totally going to happen, but it certainly is going to hurt us if there’s a real big drop in demand for ethanol because that is a huge market for us.
“The ethanol industry is a big development that happened during my career and it happened over decades — it wasn’t overnight.”
Speaking of ethanol, you were literally in the room when one major event happened, related to trade and ethanol and DDGS?
“When we started out, DDGS was a byproduct and nobody knew what to do with it. Then somebody figured out this stuff had a decent protein level, maybe we can sell it as livestock feed, and that market really took off.
“The sales of DDGS to China increased year after year. Then the Chinese decided they were going to file a WTO suit against us. We were on a trip abroad when the Chinese informed the U.S. that they were going to file the WTO complaint, claiming the U.S. was selling DDGS below the cost of production.
“We were in India at the time, so a group of the officers, including myself, diverted to China. We were sitting in the room in China with Chinese economists and diplomats when they filed the complaint against the U.S. That was a surreal experience.”
How did you get involved in farm organizations? Where did you start?
“I started out on my county Farm Bureau board. I enjoyed it. Then a Farm Bureau district director retired and I asked some friends, ‘Should I try that?’ and they said, ‘Sure.’ I won a slightly contested election. From then on, one thing led to another and another.
“What I always mention to young people in leadership classes is — just say yes. There are a lot of people who turn down opportunities and they will never know what they missed.”
Looking to regulation and the regulatory side of things, what do you see as the major issues facing U.S. agriculture in the future?
“It would probably be easier to look backward than forward. U.S. agriculture has been incredibly effective at protecting itself. For no bigger percentage of the population than we are, we have been very lucky in getting politicians to support us.
“Maintaining those relationships is going to tell a whole lot of the tale. One of the things you have to do to maintain that relationship is you have to educate the population. We need to get people out on farms.
“I got an award from Monmouth College this past fall and a lot of my friends from college came back. Before they left, I got them all in the combine and they all got a chance to drive the combine, husbands and wives.
“Before they left, I went down in the basement — every farmer has a collection of hats — and gave them all a hand and I told them, ‘You’re all ag investors now.’ We really need to do that, get people out and show them what we do, show them how we treat the land right and how we treat livestock right. That will make it a lot easier to keep these regulations under control.”
How do we get young people back to the farm and back to rural communities and how do we keep young people interested in agriculture and farming?
“I don’t think that’s the problem. I think there are plenty of people wanting to come back. How you introduce them is the challenge, with the price of land and the price of machinery. There are a lot of people who want to come back and farm, but there is just no economic way for them to make the transition or get it done.
“The other problem you’ve got — I’m 76 years old and I’m still farming. I should have retired 20 years ago and somebody else should have been in there. Farmers are staying around longer.
“It’s easier now to keep going and there’s a whole generation almost that’s being squeezed out. Now, instead of every farm having a couple kids, we rely on our grandkids to come out and farm.”
Looking at the high prices that farmers are getting now for different commodities, from your experience, is it a good thing, a bad thing or a little bit of both?
“We can price ourselves out of markets, too. The particular situation we are in now, we are enjoying these high prices, but nothing cures high prices like high prices. There is going to be some pain coming to us over the next two or three years probably.
“These prices are too high. How in the world can you afford to feed cattle now? That has to be a challenge for them. There still is a demand for beef and people will pay for it, but how many people will pay for it and how many people even can? What effect is that going to have on the livestock market over the next two or three or five years?
“What effect is it going to have on those ranchers who rely on livestock for their livelihood? How are they going to manage and struggle through the next two or three years until the price of grain gets back down? The price of grain will come down quicker than that, but you have to rebuild your herd and that takes a couple of years.”
Are we in the golden era of U.S. agriculture? Was there a golden era of U.S. agriculture?
“Things ebb and flow. There have been a lot of good years. There have been a lot of bad years. We remember the bad years more than the good.
“There is a lot more trauma in trying to make it through when times are tough than there is when yields are good and prices are high and it’s easy to make payments and it’s easy to buy something new.”
If you could give a word of advice to our readers, from your experience, what would it be?
“There are always challenges and there are always opportunities. Look for the opportunities. Be willing to get involved in some things. There are a lot of organizations out there that are struggling to find people to get involved.
“I spent an awful lot of time away from the farm over the years. For the most part, you didn’t get paid, you got paid expenses and that was it. But the wealth of opportunities and information and friends I’ve made is worth every bit of the time away.”