Celebrating the organization’s 50th anniversary in 2017, the Iowa Corn Growers Association held an event at the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates in Des Moines at the end of the year to honor the farmer who started it all.
Walter Goeppinger founded the Iowa Corn Growers. The National Corn Growers Association, U.S. Grains Council and the U.S. Meat Export Federation are also a direct legacy of this visionary leader.
“It’s fitting that we honor our founder, Walter Goeppinger, in the Iowa Gallery here in the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, where so many giants from Iowa and around the globe are recognized for their agricultural contributions in helping feed a hungry world,” said Craig Floss, chief executive of Iowa Corn.
Born in 1911, Goeppinger was a lifelong resident of Boone County and a 1933 Iowa State College graduate. Actively involved in promoting U.S. ag products globally, he made numerous trips to more than 60 countries on behalf of farmers.
“Walter not only founded ICGA and NCGA, he helped establish two other organizations that promote exports of our grain and red meat,” Floss said. “He served as the first chair of what is now the U.S. Grains Council and helped form strong relationships with many of the international customers Iowa corn farmers have today.”
‘When pigs fly,’ things get going
The Iowa Corn story began in 1957 when Goeppinger founded NCGA and served as its first president, a position he held for 17 years. Today, NCGA has over 40,000 members and in 2017 celebrated its 60th anniversary. There are 28 states with corn grower associations and checkoff programs affiliated with NCGA, all with a similar mission of creating opportunities for long-term corn grower profitability.
Goeppinger’s first major international milestone was in 1959 with the Iowa Hog Lift. Two huge typhoons hit Japan in less than a month, devastating much of Japan’s Yamanashi Prefecture, an agricultural region. When Iowans heard about Yamanashi’s plight, farmers from around the state donated hogs and trucked them to Des Moines, where they were flown to Japan. Goeppinger organized the Iowa Hog Lift under the volunteer People to People Program, which sent pigs and corn to Japan to restart their industry.
“At his own expense, Walter made several trips to Washington, D.C., to negotiate with USDA to get a grant of 80,000 bushels of government corn for the Yamanashi project,” Floss said. “During the next few years, the grain-handling structure in Japan was modernized to U.S. standards, and Japan’s ability to feed its growing population significantly improved.”
Built foundation for trade relationships
Within three years of the Iowa Hog Lift, more than 500 hogs were produced from the original 35 hogs from Iowa. Within nine years, there were 500,000 hogs in Japan whose linage came from the Iowa Hog Lift.
“Not only did the Iowa Hog Lift evolve into the first sister state relationship of the People to People Program, which is still going, but the Yamanashi Project was the forerunner of market development programs under USDA’s Foreign Ag Service, enabling opportunities to trade U.S. ag products around the globe,” Floss noted. “Japan today is one of the top markets for both U.S. corn and pork.”
In 1962, Japan’s leaders expressed their gratitude by presenting to the people of Iowa a bronze temple bell cast with letters telling the story of the typhoon and Iowa’s generosity in assisting the storm-ravaged region. This Bell of Peace and Friendship is located in the formal garden at the state Capitol in Des Moines.
Left legacy for others to follow
The Iowa Hog Lift experience led Goeppinger in 1960 to help form the U.S. Feed Grains Council (now the U.S. Grains Council) and serve as its first president. The council was formed to establish new and expanded markets for corn, grain sorghum and barley around the world to benefit hungry people and U.S. farmers.
In 1967, Goeppinger built on the success of the NCGA, which he established in 1957, and founded the ICGA. He served as Iowa Corn’s first president from 1967 to 1974.
“Goeppinger conferred personally with every U.S. president from Eisenhower through Carter regarding farm and food policy,” Floss said. “President [John F.] Kennedy offered him the position of U.S. secretary of agriculture. Someday I’ll get the story why Walter said no, but the fact that he was asked by a U.S. president to be USDA secretary tells you a lot about the respect Walter had.”
Goeppinger also connected with another Iowa-born ag visionary, Dr. Norman Borlaug. Intrigued by Goeppinger’s intellectual curiosity and on-farm research to try to develop a perennial corn plant, Borlaug visited Goeppinger’s farm and test plots in the 1950s. In 1972, Goeppinger was the second recipient, after Borlaug in 1971, of the World Citizen Award presented by the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce.
Goeppinger remained active in international ag well into his later years. “In 1989 Goeppinger published the book ‘Latin America’s Gathering Storm — and Ours,’” Floss noted. “The forward was written by none other than Norman Borlaug.”
Standing on shoulders of giants
Goeppinger passed away in 2001 at 89. He was represented by members of his family at the Iowa Corn 50th anniversary celebration.
“I wish Walter could be here in person, so we could all personally thank him for his vision and work,” Floss said. Speaking on behalf of the family, Hans Goeppinger, Walter’s son, thanked everyone present for honoring his father and congratulated ICGA on its 50th birthday.
Wrapping up the evening was Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, himself a former president of both ICGA and NCGA. “We stand on the shoulders of giants,” said Northey, addressing the Goeppinger family and the audience. “Every single one of us has benefited from Walter’s legacy, and all of us have an opportunity to make a better future.”
Commentary: Harvesting the history of Iowa Corn
As someone who interviewed Walter Goeppinger and heard him speak to his fellow corn growers many years ago, I had the following thoughts as I listened to speakers at the recent 50th anniversary celebration of the Iowa Corn Growers Association.
It’s truly amazing that all of these organizations and programs such as ICGA, NCGA, U.S. Grains Council, U.S. Meat Export Federation, USDA market development programs, etc., are all going strong today largely because of one farmer from Iowa.
It’s also amazing that one act of humanitarian outreach in 1959 (Iowa Hog Lift to Japan) was a key step in starting these activities, and today Japan is one of the top markets for U.S. corn, soybeans and meat. All because someone stood up and said, “We need to help.”
In 1967, 50 years ago when the Iowa Corn Growers Association was founded, the national corn yield average was 80 bushels per acre. It was almost 100 bushels per acre more in 2017. All that corn we produce has to go someplace, right? And it goes someplace because of people making it happen. — Rod Swoboda