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Minnesota Soybean Business

Rob Hanks: Friend. Farmer. Checkoff Champion.

March-April 2020

The Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council (MSR&PC) and the soybean industry lost a luminary in their field when longtime Director Rob Hanks died unexpectedly in December 2019 at his home in LeRoy.

“I had the ultimate respect for Rob Hanks,” says Hanks’ friend and colleague, former MSR&PC Chair Keith Schrader. “We were pretty close. Rob had no enemies…his death was a shock.”

For many of his comrades in the industry, Hanks’ death signaled more than just the end of an era and the loss of a strong voice in directing checkoff investments.

“We lost a good one,” says Lawrence Sukalski, a United Soybean Board (USB) and Minnesota Soybean Growers Association (MSGA) director. “Rob was a common sense, technical guy who gave and got respect.”

Rob Hanks was a friend to many colleagues in agriculture, an affable farmer who never took himself too seriously but remained fully devoted to lifting up the soybean industry.

“He was my mentor,” said longtime Director Jim Willers. “Rob always had that friendly smile.”

To USB Chair Jim Carroll, Hanks was akin to family. During his nine-year term on USB, Hanks became fast friends with Carroll, even bunking at Carroll’s Arkansas farm during nearby USB meetings. The wry Minnesota farmer and the drawling Arkansas grower – a bit of an odd couple, Carroll says – created a close bond.

“I’m teasing here, but for a Midwestern farmer, Rob was a good farmer,” Carroll said, laughing. “He could talk chemicals and fertilizers on a very knowledgeable basis. Y’all had a good agriculture advocate up there.”

Carroll rattled off happy memories with ease. During a USB trade mission to Colombia, Carroll introduced Rob as his “twin brother,” much to Hanks’ chagrin. Carroll also fondly recalled another regular prank: when dining with Hanks, he’d tell the wait staff it was his friend’s birthday. Except it wasn’t.

“Rob was a good soul,” Carroll said. “Since he died, I think about him every week. I get teared up talking about him.”

In interviews following his death, Rob’s friends and colleagues in the soybean world all paint a similar picture: Rob was decent, empathetic, loyal, studious and equipped with a dry sense of humor.

“I respected Rob for the work he did,” Schrader said. “We all did. He was the ultimate practical thinker.”

Bob Worth, a director with MSGA and former president (2005-2007), remembers Hanks as a true mensch. The two traveled together on a trade mission to South America, and became friends when Worth’s presidential term overlapped with Hanks’ run as MSR&PC chair.

“Rob was a super, super guy,” Worth said. “I just can’t say enough good things about Rob. Rob had good insight, very intelligent, always had some one-liners. I just can’t believe he’s gone.”

The heart of the matter

Rob farmed for nearly 45 years in Mower County in southeast Minnesota alongside his brother, Neil and his nephew. The Hanks brothers raised beef, hogs, corn and soybeans and hosted international trade teams. Rob had started confiding to fellow farmers his plans to transition out of the farm’s daily operations.

“Rob was loyal to his state,” Carroll said. “He was very passionate and always brought an honest, studied position when he wanted to talk about something, and I appreciated him for that.”

Hanks served as the Council’s District 9 representative since 1997, becoming one of MSR&PC’s longest-serving directors. He participated in numerous Council action teams, most recently MSR&PC’s product development action team. He was elected chair in 2006, serving two terms, and led the Council on a 2009 See For Yourself Mission to China.

soybean news“Rob was a kind, gentle man and always willing to lend his wisdom when called upon,” says Council Chair Cole Trebesch. “We are a much stronger, durable organization because of him, and we will miss Rob dearly – both personally and professionally.”

He was re-elected to the Council in 2019 and appointed secretary-treasurer of Ag Management Solutions (AMS), which oversees daily operations of both the Council and MSGA.

“Rob was an active participant in AMS and led by example,” said AMS CEO Tom Slunecka. “He was always listening to new ideas, was very enthusiastic about the new opportunities facing the organization and was always ready to help at a moment’s notice.”

Giant growth

Since joining the Council, Hanks helped guide the soybean industry through a seismic spike in production. In 1997, U.S. soybean production totaled 2 billion bushels. Twenty years later, U.S. soybean production more than doubled, exceeding a record 4 billion bushels.

“It’s been amazing to be a part of that progression,” Hanks told Soybean Business in 2017.

The biodiesel industry exploded during Hanks’ state and national leadership career. When Hanks joined the Council in the late 1990s, a biodiesel mandate in Minnesota was a mere pipe dream. By the end of the 2010s, biodiesel grew into an industry generating nearly $1.7 billion in economic activities in Minnesota and increasing demand for soybeans by 13 percent.

“In my time on the Council, I’ve witnessed biodiesel go from an idea to the premier biofuel,” Hanks said in 2019 while campaigning for the District 9 seat. “I also appreciate the dedication of the researchers who strive to improve the quality and production yield of Minnesota soybeans for the benefit of Minnesota farmers.”

Off the farm, Rob enjoyed woodworking, photography and was a student of history.

“He was just a well-rounded guy,” Carroll said, recalling Hanks’ encyclopedic knowledge of vintage airplanes.

Farewell, friend

In March 2019, Hanks represented the Council on a weeklong tour of California’s growing biodiesel industry. Hanks was joined by Sukalski, a friend dating back to their mutual attendance at various state and national board meetings.

“We stayed at the same hotel in California and we got to meet a lot,” Sukalski said. “Rob always stayed busy and did everything with grace.”

The California mission was Hanks’ final trip on behalf of MSR&PC.

“He was the regular Rob Hanks in California, he listened well,” Sukalski said. “But Rob was the type of guy, when he spoke, people listened.”

In December, Hanks attended his final Council and AMS board meetings. The next week, Carroll called his friend from St. Louis bearing good news: Carroll had just been elected USB chair.

“Rob said, ‘Man, that’s great! I’ll know you’ll do be a great chair.’” Carroll said. “Then his nephew called me a few days later with the news…”

Slunecka, along with farmer leaders from MSGA and the Council attended a memorial service for Hanks a few days after his death. Displayed prominently were a gavel and a photo collage from Rob’s two years as Council director, a fitting tribute to 23 years of agriculture leadership.

Rob loved the soybean industry and the farmers leading the checkoff charge. The feeling was mutual.

“Rob’s heart was in their farm up there. He stayed with soybeans because he knew it meant something to farmers,” Carrol said. “He was one of those guys who never got a lot of recognition, but he deserved it. I’m proud of him.”

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