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Brave Thinkers: 30 Leaders Who Made a Difference

April 3, 2013

By Jeanne Bernick, Ed Clark, Julie Douglas and Sara Schafer

During the past three decades, these innovators left a big footprint on ag

Great Thinkers

To say that agriculture has experienced change since the inception of Top Producer is a gross understatement. At that time, there were no yield monitors, few marketing tools, no Roundup, virtually no ethanol and the Internet was just in its infancy. The 30 brave thinkers we have chosen to represent the dramatic changes during the past three decades have all left big footprints on production agriculture. As a group they represent the diversity of U.S. agriculture and hail from companies, universities and the world of politics.

We know agriculture’s advancements in all its myriad forms have not been accomplished by just 30 people. It has required thousands of dedicated pioneers throughout this rich and highly textured industry, as well as the creativity, drive and fortitude of farmers like you. So think of this list only as a beginning, and feel free to contribute the names of individuals whom you think have left their mark online at

"Innovation is anything but business as usual."
— Anonymous

Pamela Bailey. As president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the world’s leading food, beverage and consumer products companies, Bailey is a huge influencer of policy and consumer attitudes. The initiatives she moves forward or rejects have a trickle-down effect on farmers and can influence production and/or certification requirements, regulations and labeling. Bailey worked in the White House for three presidents, including President Barack Obama who appointed her to his Advisory Committee for Trade and Policy Negotiations in 2010. She serves on the board of GS1 US and is vice chair of the Partnership for Food Safety Education.

Art Barnaby. The creative genius behind crop insurance revenue protection, the single most important change in the history of the program going back to the Dust Bowl, is Barnaby. Revenue protection was born out of necessity and crisis in 1989. "That year, Kansas wheat yields were 50% of the state average," says Barnaby, a Kansas State University ag economist. "At the time we had target prices and deficiency payments, neither of which would cover yield loss to that magnitude or be effective because wheat prices skyrocketed due to production losses in Kansas." That’s when Barnaby came up with the idea that producers need to be able to protect income with crop insurance. Eventually, USDA’s Risk Management Agency picked up the idea and made revenue protection available to producers nationwide.  "I thought we might capture 5% of producer elections when it was introduced in 1996, but it was the No. 1 seller in Iowa and Nebraska," Barnaby says. So important has revenue protection become that in 2012, despite significant yield losses, there were no major calls for ad hoc aid, even in an election year.

Denny Bell


Denny Bell. Founder of Soil-Max, Agri-Logic Solution Systems and Gradient, Bell developed the early field- and yield-mapping software. Yield data led Bell to his next project, the Gold Digger tile plow.



Mike Boehlje

Mike Boehlje. An award-winning ag economist and professor at Purdue University, Boehlje has shaped how farmers think of their farm business. Prior to his work, farm management was largely focused on production and enterprise analysis. Boehlje changed that by bringing the business management approach taught by leading business schools to production agriculture. "This is a different mindset than what agriculture has historically had," Boehlje says. In his 35-year career, he has taught farmers to think strategically, with a clear vision statement and a focused strategy for creating value for customers. Boehlje has been out front explaining to farmers that they manufacture raw products and should  learn from the manufacturing approach of other businesses. This includes using contracts rather than the open market to link buyers and suppliers. When it comes to risk management, Boehlje has also been a leader in helping farmers think beyond the traditional price and yield risks to consider strategic risks that could affect their farm’s profitability and future success.

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FEATURED IN: Top Producer - Spring 2013

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