Minnesota Soybean Business

A ‘stand-up’ guy: Former MSGA president steps down as Minnesota Farm Bureau president

November-December 2021

Before an interview with Soybean Business, outgoing Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap combed through his archives to rehash some memories from his term as president of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association.

“I like to call myself organized,” the lifelong farmer said with a chuckle, “but my wife calls me ‘anal retentive.’”

Among his organized items, Paap found his presidential retirement speech from 1996. He found the title of his address – “Educate, Educate, Educate” – ironic. Twenty-five years and hundreds of meetings later, Paap says he uses entirely different language when speaking with legislative leaders and influencers.

“Now, you’d be hard pressed to hear the word ‘educate’ come out of my month,” he said. “I think it’s one of those words to lose. Any time (now) when I want to say ‘educate,’ I’m going to say ‘engage.’ It can’t be a lecture. It’s got to be a conversation.”

Paap, who farms with his wife, Julie, on their fourth-generation farm, honed his leadership skills over the course of an advocacy career that spans five decades. He’s learned about respect. Listening. Finding common ground. Building relationships. Understanding different cultures and beliefs.

Kevin Paap looks on during a Minnesota Soybean-sponsored See for Yourself trip to Vietnam in 2016.

“Now, I’m probably a better leader,” he said. “We’re not going to educate. We’re going to first listen for an opportunity to engage without judgement and find that shared value and try to create a connection –  and not just speak to them, but with them.”

In late November, Paap planned to step down after 16 years leading Minnesota Farm Bureau, marking the end of an era for the venerable advocacy group. The people and the relationships he’s established are what he’ll miss most.

“It’s been a great opportunity and experiences to see different places,” he said. “I’ve got friends all over the U.S. and many places in the world. No matter where the places were, it’s more about the people, whether I was in Cuba or closer to home talking about locks and dams.”

‘Born to lead’

Paap is a lifelong resident of Blue Earth County in south-central Minnesota (except for college, he’s only lived in three houses separated by less than a mile) and became involved at the local level by serving on the Blue Earth County Corn and Soybean Growers Board. In 1987, he was appointed to MSGA’s board of directors.

Former ASA Director and MSGA President Mike Yost knew a natural leader when he saw one. Paap, chock full of charisma and homespun one-liners (“You’re either at the table or on the menu.”), fit the bill.

“We could tell he was born to lead right away,” Yost said. “He wanted to be engaged. Certain people have that passion and intelligence, and Kevin had the right mix.”

Yost nominated Paap as vice president. In 1995 Paap was elected president. During his year as president, he helped build relationships with soybean processing plants, increased engagement with county organizations and formed the Ag Commodity Coalition. After his presidency, MSGA honored Paap by bestowing him with a rare lifetime membership.

Kevin Paap’s leadership career began on his local corn and soybean board more than 30 years ago.

“Our relationship with the processors improved tremendously,” Paap said. “We really worked a lot closer. In ag, we’re all better off working together.”

Through his leadership development with MSGA Paap forged close bonds with his fellow farmers.

“The Soybean Growers gave me the opportunity to make lifelong friends,” he said. “There are a lot of national leaders in Minnesota ag, and MSGA is no exception.”

Working in tandem with commodity groups remained a priority for Paap throughout his leadership at Minnesota Farm Bureau. With farm families accounting for less than 2% of the U.S. population, Paap said it’s important that farm advocacy groups join forces when priorities overlap.

“We’re a minority as it is, and the last thing we need to do is set up a circular firing squad,” he said. “We’ve got to not only show up and stand up, but to speak up for agriculture, because (the urban-rural) disconnect is getting wider.”

MSGA Executive Director Joe Smentek said both MSGA and Farm Bureau have aligned on legislative issues in St. Paul ranging from taxes to chemical regulations to biofuels. Paap’s deep connections with local, state and national leaders – he’s built deep connections with leaders from both parties – have helped farmers across Minnesota.

“Kevin has been a true champion for Minnesota agriculture,” Smentek said. “We’ve appreciated working with him on many policy issues, and thank him for his work on behalf of Minnesota soybean farmers.”

Staying engaged

Paap has traveled all over the world, preaching the values and production practices of Minnesota farming. He accompanied the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council on a 2016 See For Yourself trip to Vietnam, and in 2019 joined American Soybean Association Chair Bill Gordon during a USDA trade mission to South America. After traveling to Washington, D.C., hundreds of times – and visiting White House on several occasions – he hasn’t visited the nation’s capital since early March 2020, just before the pandemic restricted access to Capitol Hill. Paap also served on Farm Bureau’s Trade Advisory Committee and addressed the delegation at the North American-European Ag Summit.

“It’s always been an honor to travel on behalf of farmers, to have that opportunity,” Paap said. “Just great memories.”

Kevin Paap (left) receiving an award from Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council Chair Jim Willers in 2009.

The methods of advocacy, of course, have transformed over Paap’s 35 years representing farmers. Instead of passing notes to legislators, Paap can now text with an elected official. But the feeling remains the same.

“Farm size has changed, tech has changed, but our commitment and values haven’t changed,” Paap said. “And those are the conversations we have to have – whether it’s at the State Fair, a church basement or a ballgame – and that’s why we need farm organizations: to make sure we have that ability.”

Paap won’t be retiring entirely from rural leadership. He’s heavily involved in drainage issues as part of his role as a Blue Earth County commissioner. He also sits on the River Basin Authority and the Rural Minnesota Energy Board. He’ll continue farming and plans to stay engaged with Farm Bureau, in addition to returning to D.C. to advocate. But he’ll leave the educating to others.

“I’m OK with being a ‘has been,’” Paap said, “which is always better than a ‘never was.’


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