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Minnesota Soybean Business

‘Always at the table’: Jim Willers retires from Council after two decades of leadership

May-June 2024

Most farmer leaders on Minnesota Soybean’s two farmer-led boards can scarcely remember a time when biodiesel wasn’t a revenue driver for their operations.

But Jim Willers does. When he became a farmer leader in the late 1990s, he can recall selling his soybeans for $3.99. Along with growing the China market – which would become the largest purchaser of U.S. soy – biodiesel changed the game for not just producers, but Minnesota Soybean.

“Biodiesel put us on the map because we were unknown at the time,” Willers said. “Ever since then, legislators and the industry – they know who we are.”

Soybean industry leaders certainly know who Willers is. In 1999, the Beaver Creek farmer, who grows soybeans and corn, became a director with the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association (MSGA). During his five years on MSGA, Willers joined advocates in heading to the Capitol, where they all wore red pins and educated legislators on the potential of soy-based diesel, which led to historic legislation in 2002.

“The price of beans was down, and things were rough on farmers,” Willers said. “We’d bring a hundred farmers to the Capitol, and these legislators started to get the message.”

legislators
Jim Willers (far right) talks biodiesel with Sen. Tina Smith in 2018.

Over the ensuing quarter century, Willers has become a biodiesel expert through positions with the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council (MSR&PC), United Soybean Board and the Minnesota Biodiesel Council.

“Jim has so much knowledge about biodiesel,” Council Director Pat Sullivan said. “As a director, he was always at the table and willing to ask the hard questions.”

After watching biodiesel grow and develop, he’s now looking toward the future.

“I think sustainable aviation fuel is going to be a monster market,” Willers said. “Between that and renewable diesel, it’s taken on a life of its own.”

‘Big dreams’

Willers was elected as the Council’s District 7 representative in 2003. In 2008, he started a two-year run as chairman, during which MSR&PC continued investing checkoff resources toward biodiesel, agronomic research, creating new uses and opening new markets. Throughout his seven terms on the Council, Willers was involved in nearly all aspects of MSR&PC’s strategic mission, from product development to marketing and communications efforts.

“Jim’s always thinking about how we can work better and work smarter,” Council CEO Tom Slunecka said. “He’s not afraid of challenging the status quo and taking risks.”

Council Director Jim Willers poses next to the Plasma Blue unit, a checkoff-supported technology.

On behalf of the checkoff, Willers traveled internationally to help grow markets in China, Southeast Asia and Europe.

“I’ve always been very impressed with Jim’s ability to meet and find new contacts to help us on our project work,” Slunecka said. “He’s able to work the room and take the task to heart.”

Willers has helped promote numerous checkoff projects, including RePlay asphalt surface and checkoff collaborations with the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI). During a visit to the Council’s office in April, Willers arrived wearing soy-based Skechers shoes.

“We’ve had pretty big dreams on the (soybean) oil side,” Willers said, “and we’ve far exceeded that now.”

When Willers started, the Council held operations in a basement in North Mankato. Once he attends his final board meeting in June, Willers will experience the Council’s new, state-of-the-art headquarters.

“We’ve become a very focused and well-respected organization,” he said.

Council Chair Tom Frisch lauded Willers’ industry expertise.

“It’s going to be a big loss,” he said. “There’s a lot of knowledge Jim retained over 21 years on the Council. He’s been instrumental in our success.”

After Willers’ current term ends July 1, he plans to enjoy time with family. To bring it back full circle, Willers hopes to stay involved with the Minnesota Biodiesel Council.

“It’s been fun, and I’m going to miss the people,” he said. “But I hope to stay on the Biodiesel Council as long as they’ll want me on there.”

After moving from MSGA to MSR&PC, Willers continued championing MSGA’s lobbying efforts. He understands how both organizations work together to improve the farm economy.

“Without the advocacy part, the checkoff side couldn’t thrive,” he said. “With how few rural legislators there are today, I think it’s even more important today than ever to support MSGA and be a member.”

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