CARROLLTON, Ill. — From raising pumpkins on the family farm in his youth to training Zambia, Africa, farmers in modern practices, agriculture has been ingrained in Todd Steinacher’s early life and career.
The AgriGold agronomist’s dedication to the industry led to Steinacher being named the 2021 International Certified Crop Adviser of the Year at the American Society of Agronomy annual meeting on March 24.
He is the third Illinois agronomist to receive the honor since the CCA certification was established in 1992.
The ICCA of the Year Award recognizes a CCA who delivers exceptional customer service, is highly innovative, has shown that he or she is a leader in his or her field and has contributed to the exchange of ideas and the transfer of agronomic knowledge within the agriculture industry.
Steinacher will be honored at the American Society of Agronomy-Crop Science Society of America-Soil Science Society of America international annual meeting later this year. He was named recipient of the 2020 Illinois CCA Award last December.
“Early on I set my goal of being an agronomist. I’ve spent most of my career now as an agronomist and what better way to culminate 15 years of agronomy than winning this. It’s pretty exciting for me because believe it or not I was actually a very shy kid from a small town and being able to do these things is pretty cool,” Steinacher said.
His passion for agriculture is rooted in the family farm near Carrollton, where he worked with his grandparents and father and also started raising pumpkins.
“That kind of sparked me to take FFA classes when I got into high school. I enjoyed doing all of the contests and activities like that, and that’s what led me to pursue a career in agriculture,” he noted.
His career path began when he enrolled at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield with a focus on the ag fertilizer program.
“I actually followed a couple buddies of mine to Lincoln Land because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Honestly within about two weeks I found I really liked the school because in high school and grade school I was not a good student. I struggled a lot just comprehending things, but it seemed like once I started taking my ag classes, it just all started making sense. I could understand chemistry and math, and it just made sense,” Steinacher said.
After receiving his associate degree he earned his bachelor’s degree in agronomy and business from Western Illinois University. His master’s degree in crop science at the University of Illinois would come later with a bit of a push from Howard Brown when Steinacher worked at Growmark after graduating from WIU.
“Dr. Brown was then the main agronomist at Growmark. I’d worked there maybe five years and I would call Howard and help do projects and he said at the time, ‘You have more questions than answers and I think you need to go to grad school.’ He was one of the professors in the online program. I’m thinking, I can’t do grad school. I took my first class. It was soil fertility class with Howard. I enjoyed every single class that I had. I learned a lot. I did that while working full time,” he said.
His career would eventually lead him to AgriGold in 2015 where he provides agronomic support for farmers in west-central and southwest Illinois. He was named AgriGold Agronomist of the Year three years later.
He recently began serving as host of AgriGold’s agronomy-based podcasts.
Steinacher is an Illinois Soybean Association CCA Envoy alum, writes three blogs monthly for ISA’s ILSoyAdvisor, coordinates the current Soy Envoy program where six CCAs from across the state provide blogs and podcasts of agronomic information, and assists in lining up speakers for ISA webinars and the annual Soybean Summit.
Beyond his duties with AgriGold, Steinacher serves on the Illinois CCA Board of Directors, is a mentor to new CCA candidates and represented the CCA program while promoting the importance of ag research funding at ASA-CSSA-SSSA Congressional Visits Day in Washington.
“Congress sets aside funds each year to go for agronomy research that will one day benefit farmers and the food supply chain, and every year there has to be groups that go to Washington and remind Congress that this is important to make sure this goes through,” he said.
“I’ve had the opportunity to go out there and explain to some of these people the importance of agronomy, the importance of production ag and how some of the research projects that they’ve funded in the past actually benefit farmers and consumers that are in their district and not in their district. Most people don’t know that the CCA program does that.”
Paying It Forward
Steinacher believes it is important to pay it forward as a mentor for prospective CCAs.
“There are a lot of people in my life who helped me get to where I’m at, whether it’s at school or Howard guiding me down the path or the folks helping me be a CCA. So, anytime I have sales or industry people who want to become a CCA, I’ve had the opportunities to help coach them through taking their tests, not just learning the information to go take a test and pass it, but to fundamentally understand it so when you’re taking that test you know why you’re answering it, so once you’re out with growers you actually understand it,” he said.
“I want to help those other ones that are going to actually build the next generation of CCAs in a way that others helped me.”
One of the most gratifying parts of his job as an agronomist and CCA is working one-on-one with farmers to help them achieve their goals.
“Since I’m not directly related to sales, growers know if I’m there on the farm I’m not there to sell them anything. When an agronomy CCA shows up on a farm, their motivation is to help solve a problem,” Steinacher said.
“A piece I really pride myself on, and I learned from Howard, is how to take very complicated, high-level science topics and bring it down to a level to where every farmer can understand it and act to implement it. I think sometimes there are things that don’t get implemented just because maybe the industry didn’t explain it very well and maybe growers don’t use it just because it wasn’t explained very well.
“So, I’ve tried using analogies and examples. For example, I’ve had customers in the past that didn’t really see value in nitrogen stabilizer. We would sit down and draw out the nitrogen cycle and do soil samples throughout the season so they could understand it. I put it in bar charts and spreadsheets and they can actually watch their levels move. Once they see that with examples they want to move forward to protect this.”
His efforts to assist farmers get to the next level of production efficiently and sustainably have stretched from the Illinois prairie to small farms in Zambia, Africa.
In the fall of 2018, he was part of a team that traveled to Zambia to train 11 village farmers in modern agriculture practices to help utilize and increase their food stability. The following year, he returned to Zambia to host field days, showing over 160 Zambian farmers the differences between field trials established on his previous visit.
“This year will be their third crop and we’ve actually grown the program. I’m not sure how many farmers we have now. We couldn’t travel over there because of COVID. When we were over there we worked with the farmers, but we were also able to build our network so when we’re not there we can ask those people to help and make sure things get done,” Steinacher said.
“But one of the coolest things is one of the first farms we worked with didn’t do the trial. He did 100% of what we recommended on his whole farm. He bought in so he anteed up on his side and had huge returns. The next year he had very good yields.
“So, essentially he’s growing more corn now to the point where his family is sustained, he’s able to sell corn. Going into this last year he was able to start a chicken farm because he’s got grain. He is able to feed chickens which then are going to feed his family. Animal protein is very hard to come by over here. He is introducing animal protein to his family, but he’s also selling chickens to other people and to restaurants.
“He’s a prime example of what the project was all about, helping lift people out of poverty through the education of agronomy.”
And Steinacher is a prime example of how a self-proclaimed “shy kid from a small town” can enthusiastically share his agronomic knowledge to help farmers here and abroad improve their way of life.