Tolman reminisces on ethanol's impact on corn farming

By Holly Jessen | October 10, 2014

In another week, Rick Tolman will wrap up his 14-year role as CEO of the National Corn Growers Association. Tolman’s last day at NCGA is Oct. 17, one week after the new CEO, Chris Novak, starts on Oct. 13.

In the final weeks, as he went through more than a decade of files and prepared for the transition, Tolman told Ethanol Producer Magazine the thing that sticks out most in his mind is the remarkable change in the ag economy, thanks to the growth of the ethanol industry. “I think too often we just kind of forget about what it was like before,” he said, adding that people tend to complain about the ethanol industry without remembering how dramatic an impact the renewable fuel standard (RFS) had when it went into effect in 2006. “When I started in 2000, the big issue at the time was rural economic development,” he said. “And for the first five years that I worked here, it was all about, how do we stop the decline, the erosion in the rural economy?”

Corn had been about $2 for a decade and, as a result, farm prices were down, farmers weren’t making a return and they had to rely on the government to stay in business. Farmers were not encouraging young people to return to farms to work, meaning the average age of farmers was increasing, he said. There was no economic stimulus so consolidation of farms, school districts, fire stations and hospitals was common. “It was a pretty depressing time,” he said.

Tolman reminisced about the built out of the ethanol industry, with 150 new ethanol plants built in the U.S., most of them farmer-owned and built in rural areas. “They weren’t in Houston or New Jersey or Long Beach and they created dramatic change in rural economies,” he said, adding that the engine of growth brought contractors into small towns to build the plants and add new rail lines. “The multiplier effects spread through these communities in tax base and revenue and dealerships opened, cars were sold and homes were built, all kinds of neat things,” he said. “I think sometimes we forget how dramatic that was.”

Although it could be argued that the ethanol industry grew too fast, it is certain that it was the opportunity that brought about the new ag economy. A lot of the credit for innovation in farm equipment, seed varieties, farm equipment and ag technologies as well as growth in grain storage and job creation goes to the ethanol industry. Young people started returning to work on the farm and the farm gate value of corn more than doubled since 2005. “I could go on and on,” he said.  “I think it’s one of the truly remarkable economics growth stories of our nation and of our modern times.”

Looking ahead, Tolman is interested in getting re-engaged professionally. Perhaps sometime after the first of the year he’s interested in possibly doing some consulting work. “I want to stay involved, but not at the same intensity level that this job has been for the last 14 years,” he said. But, first, he and his wife are relocating to northern Utah, near where she has some relatives.  “When I was applying for my most important job ever, which is to be the husband to my wife, one of my campaign promises was that I would get her back to family at some point in her life, and this is that point in life,” he said.