A voice for national transportation networks

TYLER — Joel Schreurs sees firsthand the many ways individual farmers depend on national and global transportation arteries.

Schreurs grows soybeans, corn and some alfalfa at his farm in Marshfield Township, Lincoln County, north of Tyler. He also serves as national vice-chairman of the Soy Transportation Coalition, a group made up of national and state soybean growers associations that aims to enhance highways, railroads and shipping networks in ways helpful to rural America.

He said southwest Minnesota’s soybean crop has a recent history of widely marketed exports to countries in East Asia.

In order to reach those destinations, it’s necessary to ship soybeans to the west coast by way of farm to market roads and then regional railroad networks.

“It’s much more than just one kind of transportation,” Schreurs said. “To market our commodities as much as possible, we need an effective transportation system every step of the way. Improvements in one area often lead to expansions or upgrades with others.”

Schreurs began to rent farmland and raise crops when he was still a student at Tyler High School. He already had plenty of on-farm experience by helping with a family farm operation.

He first became involved in soybean growers associations through participation in an introductory leadership program called See For Yourself. The program is for soybean farmers who are willing to serve for at least one year on a soybean association board.

I tried it for a year and thoroughly enjoyed it,” he said. “I saw that it’s a great opportunity to meet people nationally and worldwide who are active in the soybean industry.”

As part of See For Yourself, Schreurs traveled to New Orleans to tour its export terminals. Ocean going ships leave New Orleans for many international destinations.

Since then he has been part of overseas tours to major soybean trading partners such as China, Japan and Thailand. He saw the many ways soybeans from rural America help to propel economic activities halfway around the world.

Those experiences have been helpful for serving as a board member for the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, the United Soybean Board and the Soy Transportation Coalition.

He was elected to his highest office in December, when he was chosen as the coalition’s vice-chairman. He served as its secretary-treasurer in 2017-18.

He also remains connected to locally based soybean promotional efforts. He said one of the most successful projects in Lincoln County involves a scholarship program for high school students who intend to gain post-secondary education.

The program has grown considerably since its inception. In 2018 it provided 24 scholarships worth $30,000 altogether. The total amount of all scholarships awarded since the start-up exceeds $300,000.

Another local promotional tradition involves a breakfast co-hosted with Lincoln County 4-H. While raising funds for both organizations, it acts as an opportunity to create public awareness of soybeans as a food ingredient.

“We believe in being visible within the county,” Schreurs said. “It’s a way to meet the public and to let them know what soybean farming is all about.”

He said part of his motivation to serve on soybean boards was the example provided by several other Lincoln County farmers. He spends about 40 days each year helping with soybean promotional work. It’s possible alongside full-time farming since the boards make efforts to schedule meetings outside of peak farming times like planting and harvest seasons.

He also receives help with tasks such as midsummer crop spraying from his son-in-law and daughter, Matt and Ashley Milner. They farm a short distance to the northeast in neighboring Lyon County.

“There are times when I could have scheduled vacations,” Schreurs said. “Instead I’ve devoted time to soybean associations because it’s rewarding and it’s a way to promote our product. I believe the time I invest pays off for my own operation.”

He expects that farmer-driven advocacy for soybeans and other commodities will continue to be important in the years to come. Involvement from younger farmers will help to respond to changes in global production and marketing.

As an example, he noted that China uses soybeans imported from the United States mostly to manufacture livestock feed. It’s not a major human food resource because China restricts the use of genetically modified (GMO) imports. That has led industries and soybean advocates from the United States to seek ways of importing more non-GMO soybeans, and also to invest in maintaining access to other international markets.

“One of our most important goals is to continue to upgrade locks and dams on the Mississippi River,” Schreurs said. “They’re in better shape than they’ve been in the past, but we still need to keep them maintained. The cost to replace them would be astronomical.”

He added that the Mississippi River is a crucial part of the shipment of soybeans that are taken from farms to local grain elevators and then loaded onto railcars. It also acts as a marketing outlet for soybean-based products generated by processing plants in Brewster in Nobles County and in the Mankato area.

By traveling through a system of locks between the Twin Cities and St. Louis, Mo., barge traffic gains access to New Orleans, Louisiana, as well as southern railroad routes that reach the West Coast.

“It’s an advantage to do everything we can to keep a variety of marketing options,” Schreurs said. “As we see limitations in one possibility, like the amount of exports to China because of GMO concerns, we need other avenues that create new opportunities.”

Soybean Transportation Coalition executive director Mike Steenhoek said in a news release announcing newly elected officers for 2019 that it wouldn’t be possible to effectively promote soybeans on a global scale without the active involvement of farmers from soybean-producing states.

“The newly elected officers will continue our legacy of having effective and innovative farmer leadership,” Steenhoek said. “I sincerely appreciate the willingness of these farmer leaders and the entire board to devote their time and energy.”