Minnesota Soybean Business

The forecast: A conversation with MSR&PC CEO Tom Slunecka

January-February 2022

Tom Slunecka is an optimist by nature.

“As a commodity that relies on an international market, there are many factors outside of our control,” Slunecka said. “However, 2022 looks to be promising for soybean production and Minnesota agriculture as a whole.”

Along with serving as CEO of the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council, Slunecka is CEO of Ag Management Solutions, which oversees the daily operations of both MSR&PC and the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, among other organizations. Formed in 2017, AMS has cultivated a reputation in agriculture circles as a nimble, full-service organization on the rise.

“Our concept is one of doing the behind-the scenes work – like accounting, communications and HR – to allow the executives of small associations to do what the members really need done, as opposed to spending a lot of time keeping up with ever-changing accounting and HR regulations and media trends,” Slunecka said. “That business model seems to be more and more accurate every single day.”

From his standing desk at his office in Mankato on the eve of his 10-year anniversary with Minnesota Soybean, Slunecka settled in to his first Q&A with Soybean Business.

Q: Prior to 2020, there was no guidebook for how to manage an organization during a pandemic. As someone who works with numerous farmer-led boards and oversees a company with more than 20 staff members, what did you learn about yourself as an executive over the past two years?

Tom Slunecka (TS): I’ve learned that trusting the team to do the right thing is more than just something you say. In order to trust, you have to make sure the direction is clear, because while working from home, you don’t have the opportunity to have the same touchpoints that you would in a normal business seating. Having a clear delineation of responsibility is vital to success in an environment where everyone can’t touch base around the office.

Q: Were you surprised by the strides AMS and Minnesota Soybean have been able to make during this pandemic?

TS: I was deeply encouraged by the fact that there was more work out there than one would think. The teams that step up and get it done the right way will always have opportunities to do more. I’m also very proud of what AMS is doing for Minnesota and national agriculture. Growing and defending agriculture continues to get more difficult, and more outside factors are forcing the ag associations that represent them to be more technical and more efficient with the same resources. Good associations are looking for those type of efficiencies in order to accomplish the bigger objectives that their members need. AMS has provided those efficiencies.

Council CEO Tom Slunecka strategizes with MSR&PC directors prior to a December 2021 board meeting.

Q: How have the Council and MSGA grown in the years since AMS formed?

TS: Like all of our clients, MSR&PC and MSGA have benefited greatly from the creation of AMS. We have far more talent on staff than could ever be afforded by those associations if they were standalone entities. By understanding the needs of the various groups that AMS manages, AMS was able to bring on talent that can effectively deal with today’s challenges.

It’s always about people, and in a world where there are far more groups pitting against agriculture than for agriculture, we need to be every bit as smart as they are, and that requires a talent pool that is typically difficult for small associations to field.

Q: As you look back on 2021, what were some of the checkoff-related highlights?

TS: The big promotion of the year was our Driving Soy campaign, and we’ve been recognized on a national level for the work done by the communications team on behalf of MSR&PC, and it’s a really tremendous opportunity for consumers all over Minnesota to see the value that the checkoff brings. Our programs are focused on farmers, but this is a story that impacts everyone. We hope to see more and more soybased tires on the road in the coming years, which will drive demand for soybeans.

Another major accomplishment for 2021 is really occurring right now. We were able to secure $2 million in federal grant money for the Specialty Soya and Grains Alliance. Those funds have been used to develop a new brand for U.S. Identity Preserved soybeans. What this means for Minnesota farmers is more opportunities and higher profitability by earning a larger part of the international food market. Everyone’s always looking to diversify, to strengthen what they do, and we’ve found diversification right within our own commodity.

The importance of the Ag Innovation Campus story continues to build. With construction scheduled to be completed by December of 2022, the opportunity for new developments of specialty soybean varieties, crop varieties, and new processing technology to have the true market impact will be seen. This is one-of-a-kind facility will operate as not-for-profit. The benefit is the profits will develop tomorrow’s agriculture. The AIC is the first of its kind in the world where the crush plant is there for the reason of advancing agriculture. It will benefit in the immediate area as soon as the doors open, and it will benefit farmers all across the United States in the years to come.

Plasma Blue is another major initiative coming out of MSR&PC. The board members of the Council are extremely entrepreneurial in nature and they’re willing to do the hard work of developing products, whether it’s a new soybean or a new way of processing. They are willing to risk failure in order to pursue bold ideas. Plasma Blue will change the profitability of small processing facilities with its cutting-edge technology. Only through the investment of checkoff resources could that have been realized.

Q: You serve on behalf of a 15-member Council board. What makes this farmer-led group unique?

TS: I believe we have the best of the best. The diversification of our board is not just in the fact that they’re geographically diverse, but their ideas and business acumen is unique to each board member. This strengthens the board’s decisions and creates conversation where every proposal is challenged in a constructive way.

Tom Slunecka shares a laugh with Sen. Tina Smith during a presentation on Plasma Blue and the Ag Innovation Campus in June 2021.

This group of leaders asks the tough questions, and they’ll push for answer when necessary. At the same time, they’re also very novel in their approach to what we should be working on and they’re forever looking forward and not back.

Q: What are some of the Council’s top priorities for 2022?

TS: 2022 is going to be a big year for MSR&PC and the accomplishments that have been established over the past two years – projects like finding new markets in countries such as Uzbekistan, crushing the first beans at the AIC and processing the first million gallons through Plasma Blue are just some of the advancements that checkoff investments will see come to fruition in 2022. Other major initiatives include the line of new agronomic compositional traits through our breeding program, and research that helps improve the biodiesel industry and making sure we’ve got markets right here at home and new uses from the many processing facilities that we’re blessed to have in Minnesota will round out the top accomplishments for 2022.

Q: MSR&PC and MSGA are separate organizations but their interests overlap. How do the two groups work together to improve farmer profitability?

TS: Minnesota leads the nation again in how the checkoff Council and Growers
Association can work together. By sharing a pool of talented staff – and by the
Council taking on the work of research and understanding how agriculture policy can affect farmers in rural communities – they have demonstrated a true hand-in-glove relationship. Understanding that checkoff dollars can’t be used for lobbying efforts has been a positive part of the relationship. MSGA depends on its grower leaders, fundraisers and membership dues in order to pay for the advocacy, but lobbying efforts have to be based on science. It’s not emotions that drives effective policies, it’s facts. And the Council has the ability to ensure that we understand how policies, whether they’re environmental-based, transportation issues, trade issues and a whole host of other issues that will truly affect farmers and rural communities.

Q: 2022 will mark your tenth year as Council CEO. How has the organization evolved since 2012?

TS: I’ve been privileged to be here for nearly a decade. It seems like just yesterday I was at my very first MSR&PC board meeting. Over that time, the trust and relationships between myself, grower-leaders and our staff has grown immensely. At the same time, the challenges have become more and more difficult to manage – most of those challenges coming from outside of ag. The strategic plans the Council and MSGA maintains, helps to assure that staff are following the leadership of the boards, and that we are always all on the same page because of the time we take building and reaffirming those strategic plans.

Tom and his wife, Robyn, are parents of three sons: Wyatt (left) William (second to right) and Jack (right).

Q: You have a lot of irons in the fire. How do you stay grounded and maintain a work-life balance?

TS: It’s always about family. As a farm kid, my grounding mechanism is the family farm, and I retreat back to that as often as I can to reground myself. My wife, Robyn, and I have raised three very active boys (Wyatt, William and Jack), and they make sure that my nights and weekends are busy and fulfilled.

Q: You’ve endured a trade war, low commodity prices and a global pandemic. What’s your outlook on the future for agriculture?

TS: I’m but one small cog in a very big wheel, but from where I stand, Minnesota agriculture has a bright future. In ten years, I have seen firsthand how an organization like ours can change our future. When farmers get together, there is little they can not change and achieve. State and national organizations really matter: They drive markets, policy and advancement like no other industry. One does not need to look far to see what farmer-led boards can do – biofuels, increasing the amount of people we feed, dramatic advancements in environmentally friendly production practices and many more. All of these changes started at association board meetings, and I’m proud to be a small part of this amazing organization.


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