Drive a little ways south of where I live and the corn fields give way to "prime" strip mine ground. To clarify, the quotation marks are there to show sarcasm because nobody calls that land prime.
Except, perhaps, Steve Foglesong.
Steve has carved out a ranch in the middle of Illinois cornfields. A true cowboy on a horse with a hat, calving a herd of cows, raising stockers, feeding cattle and developing replacement heifers. Since 1994, he's worked to convert 5,000 acres of reclaimed strip mine land into productive pasture that's ideal for raising cattle – or as he likes to say, converting sunshine into protein. Black Gold Ranch, he calls it. Indeed.
Everybody has that reason they're passionate about something; for some people it's money or the industry. For Steve, it's family. Located near Astoria, Ill., the ranch is a family enterprise. Steve and his wife, Linda, and their four children, Nate, Drew, Cole and Kaitlyn, plus their spouses and loads of grandchildren. Sustainability is one of those words that I kind of loathe, because people tend to use it to mean whatever they want. But I like Steve's definition. He sees sustainability as keeping his family farming, staying on the ground and keeping the ranch profitable so they can sustain the next generation.
Mike Deering has a further thought: Steve volunteers with trade associations as another way of keeping the industry sustainable. Deering leads the Missouri Cattlemen these days, but he was director of communications for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association when Steve was president.
Talk about volunteering your time and efforts. After serving as president of the Illinois Beef Association, Steve became NCBA president from 2010-2011. The Secretary of Agriculture appointed him to the Cattlemen's Beef Board, and he's served on the Beef Checkoff Working Group. He's worked in a variety of committee positions, providing strategic direction, and helped coordinate efforts between NCBA, state associations, beef councils and other industry affiliates. Today, he's chair of NCBA's million-dollar-plus political action committee – the second largest in U.S. agriculture, behind sugar.
You know where this is all going: influence. The man works hard at home and in Washington and in all points between. Bringing people together. Casting a vision. Making it happen. And, you know, starring in a nationwide commercial at the same time.
True enough, Steve was one of five farmers nationwide to be featured in a national commercial for McDonalds restaurants, talking about how he raises beef and why stewardship and the environment and the animal's welfare is important to him. He's cultivated relationships with McDonalds people, building a bridge between retailers and cattlemen. Influence, again.
The commercials are a slice of life, but it's a big life. Steve is known for being loud, opinionated, passionate, relentless. And with a sense of humor that can diffuse a tense meeting, while still getting his point across. He's a little like wine with blue cheese, Deering says; you're not sure what to think at first, but then you really like it.
All the while, still a cowboy, through and through.
And the thing is, we just don't do his kind of thing east of the Mississippi. We don't call it a ranch. We don't regularly use horses to gather cattle. We don't wear a lot of cowboy hats, at least not since the 1990s. We raise corn on farms and wear seed corn caps.
That's exactly why I think what he's done is so very fascinating. He's carved himself out a niche, right here on the prairie. He found the right land for a ranch. He made it productive. He made it sustainable.
He did the same thing with NCBA, too. "He had goals and he made them happen," Deering says. "He's very good at getting people to understand his ideas."
And isn't that the thing? Communicating your vision is half to two-thirds of the battle. Every good agriculturalist I've featured this month has been able to do that. Deering shared another of Steve's habits that made him an effective leader. "He didn't just talk about what he wanted to accomplish. He'd talk about what would happen if we accomplish this – what's the end result? How will this grow and advance the industry?"
It's one thing to cast a vision. It's another thing entirely to do it in a way that makes people want to hop on board with you. It's one of the big reasons Steve Foglesong is an agriculturalist who influences.
Agriculturalists Who Influence: The Series
- Day 1: Introduction
- Day 2: Jim Evans
- Day 3: Becky Doyle
- Day 4: David and Nancy Erickson
- Day 5: Katie Pinke
- Day 6: Joe Hampton
- Day 7: Noreen Frye
- Day 8: Carolyn Olson
- Day 9: John and Kendra Smiley
- Day 10: Colleen Callahan
- Day 11: Neil and Debbie Fearn
- Day 12: Martin Barbre
- Day 13: Pam Smith
- Day 14: Jim Esworthy
- Day 15: Erin Ehnle
- Day 16: Al Somers
- Day 17: Tom Carr
- Day 18: Russ and Marilyn Rosenboom
- Day 19: Matt Lloyd
- Day 20: Max Armstrong
- Day 21: Steve Foglesong