Bill Gordon has a slight confession to get off his chest: At first, he had zero intentions of joining MSGA’s board of directors. In 2004, the young father and Worthington farmer wanted to advance his leadership experience by applying to the American Soybean Association’s (ASA) prestigious Young Leader prestigious program.
The kicker: Gordon failed to read the fine print.
“I just filled out the application,” he says. “I had no idea what the commitment really was.”
Bill and his wife, Dawn, were eventually selected to represent Minnesota in the Young Leader program. Bill later was told Dawn’s engaging presence may have tipped the scales in his favor.
“The guys on the board used to say, ‘We picked you because your wife’s amazing. You’re just average like everyone else,’” he says, laughing between bites of shrimp quesadilla at a local Mexican restaurant, where he knows the owners by name. Gordon is acquainted with almost everyone in his hometown, either through farming, family ties or his flourishing accounting business, Worthington Tax and Business Services, which he’s owned for five years.
Soon after his Young Leader selection, Gordon read a headline in MSGA’s newsletter welcoming him to the MSGA board. Wait, what? Bill thought. I didn’t sign up for that.
“My wife said, ‘What did you do? What’s going on here?’” Gordon says. “I had no idea it came with a three-year commitment.”
But Gordon is a man of his word, sticking to his three-year pledge – and then some. In addition, he also completed the Minnesota Agriculture & Rural Leadership (MARL) program, further establishing his leadership bona fides. He joined his local corn and soybean board, helping to transform Nobles County into one of the state’s most active and efficient county soybean organizations.
“Bill’s paid his dues as an advocate at the county, state and national levels,” says former MSGA CEO and current Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council CEO Tom Slunecka. “Now, he’s starting to reap the fruits of his labor, and we couldn’t be prouder of the leaps he’s made as a leader and advocate.”
Fifteen years since he somewhat reluctantly became an at-large MSGA director, Gordon is now the leading voice of soybean growers at the national level after he was promoted to ASA president at the organization’s December board meeting.
“I tease those same guys now – I guess I wasn’t so average after all, huh?” he says, smiling. “I just really started to enjoy the leadership stuff. It wasn’t something I planned on. It just happened and I’m grateful for this opportunity to represent soybean farmers across the country.”
Living the farm life
There was never much discussion about it growing up, but Gordon knew he was going to be a farmer, just like three generations of Gordons before him.
“I always wanted to be a farmer, always had a toy tractor, just like (son) Liam does now,” Gordons says. “I’d watch my dad plant and sit in his tractor as much as possible.”
Gordon was a star wrestler; the lanky teenager won about 75 percent of his matches. He also became a 4-H state ambassador, and eventually majored in general agriculture from South Dakota State, around the same time when he began courting his now-wife, Dr. Dawn Gordon. The two met in high school, but Gordon recalls it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. For one thing, Dawn wanted to leave her family farm, not marry into another one.
“She thought I was a hick farm boy and I thought she was prissy,” Gordon says, smiling. “The irony was we realized we weren’t any of those things.”
The Gordons celebrate will celebrate 19 years of marriage in 2020. The couple is raising four children – Luke, Lance, Anna and Liam. Dawn is the dean of Science and Nursing at the Minnesota West Community & Technical College in Worthington.
“We made a life for ourselves here,” Gordon says. “We love to travel, but Worthington and Nobles County will always be home.”
The Gordons grow corn and soybeans on their 2,000-acre farm; an additional 400 acres are set aside for wetlands and water filtration. In 2019, the Gordons were named Nobles County’s 2019 “Farm Family of the Year” by the University of Minnesota. The Gordons live on the fourth-generation family farm that celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2020; Bill’s parents, Galen and Colleen, live just a couple miles down the road.
“My family took care of this land for generations before me and I plan to do the same for my children,” Gordon says. “Farming has its ups and downs like any job, but at the end of the day, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.”
The Gordons are a busy family. Between farming, his ASA duties and his tax business, Bill doesn’t have much time to loaf around.
“‘Unwinding’ for me is doing taxes and meeting with people and solving those problems,” he says. “I like to hang out with my family, too. What I like about all the activities I do is they’re all different.”
Sometimes though, Gordon admits, he contemplates unplugging the phone and playing hooky. Then reality returns and he remembers everything he has to do that day.
“I’ll sometimes say to Dawn, ‘Can’t we just call in sick?’” he says. “But we both have so much to do. The phone’s always ringing. Even when I do take days off, I’m still active.”
Gordon and Dawn are both avid scuba divers who enjoy the serenity of being underwater.
“It’s peaceful in the water,” he says. “There’s no noise.”
Climbing the board
As he rose the ranks of MSGA, fellow directors good-naturedly teased Gordon, calling him “the kid.” Gordon says he was used to it.
“I’ve been ‘the kid’ my entire life,’” says Gordon, who farms with his parents and two cousins.
Gordon no longer felt like a kid when he asserted himself during a sit-down with then-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. The governor pulled Gordon aside after the meeting.
“Wow, you really stand out the room,” Pawlenty told him.
Gordon’s peers elected him elected MSGA vice president and he became an ASA director in 2013. In 2018, he was elected vice president, where he served under President Davie Stephens.
“I’ve known Bill for a long time and have always enjoyed working with him,” Stephens says. “He knows the parameters of what it takes to be president, and I know he’s up for the challenge.”
During his seven years on the ASA board, Gordon has delved into public affairs, biodiesel and transportation issues, environmental stewardship and international marketing. In 2019 alone, he represented ASA and Minnesota farmers on USDA trade missions to South America and Southeast Asia.
“After all this, I found I really enjoyed the leadership stuff,” he says.
MSGA President Jamie Beyer says Gordon’s talent for reaching across state lines to build relationships make him uniquely suited to preside over ASA.
“I really admire Bill’s ability to get to know the other state leaders,” she says. “He’s a very efficient communicator, and it’s nice to have someone with a little broader perspective to keep moving ASA forward.”
The Gordon family farm isn’t the only entity celebrating a milestone in 2020: ASA is celebrating a century of advocacy in the coming year.
“It’s going to be a big year, professionally and personally,” Gordon says.
Oh, and there’s also a presidential election approaching in November. Gordon, whose great uncle was chair of Minnesota’s DFL party, says farmers don’t vote strictly along party lines.
“Farmers didn’t vote for a Republican (in 2016), they voted for someone to listen to rural values,” he said. “It comes down to values, I think. Who’s going to stand up for rural Americans?”
Gordon says he hopes to see a trade deal in China, along with a removal of retaliatory tariffs, see its way to completion during his term. Working out more trade deals with other international markets, infrastructure upgrades, pushing for more value-added soybeans and extending the Biodiesel Tax Credit are also high priorities in 2020 as ASA opens its new D.C. office.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do and this election is going to influence the next four years, at least,” Gordon says. “If I can at the end of my term, tell farmers, ‘We got these things done to improve your profitability,’ then I think I’ll be very happy.”
Gordon also hopes to recruit a more diverse demographic to ASA; he’s aiming to help find more women and African Americans farmers to join the board. He’ll be traveling domestically and internationally often in his capacity – up to six months out of the year, he estimates – and plans to find the next crop of soybean leaders along the way.
“I’d like to see us get a more diverse that demographically is more representative of our industry,” says Gordon, who will move to ASA chair in December 2021. “We have a really tight-knit team top to bottom, and I think everyone appreciates that by having different voices, that’s good for the board as a whole.”
Stephens says every ASA president knows to expect the unexpected and roll with the punches.
“Anyone who runs for president knows the parameters and the challenge. Billy is up for it. He’ll be a good leader, connects with farmers and I wish him 100 percent success,” Stephens says. “He knows he can always call on me for support.”
From Young Leader to ASA president, Bill Gordon has passed through nearly every rank of soybean leadership. After nearly 20 years of volunteering, he’s considering stepping away from his ag leadership endeavors after his year term as chair ends in 2021.
By now, he’s read the fine print.
“Twenty years is a long time to do be doing this,” he says. “But we’ve got some work ahead of us at ASA and that’s going to be my primary focus for the year.”