By Bill Horan: Rockwell City, Iowa
"Is Dean Kleckner the most famous farmer in America?"
I thought about the question for a moment.
"No," I said. "He’s not the most famous farmer in America. He’s the most famous farmer in the world."
I know, I know: "Famous farmer" is an oxymoron. Although growing food is one of the most important jobs around, the work is done in near-anonymity.
Yet in the halls of power, Dean became known as the great champion of U.S. agriculture. Last month, he stepped down as chairman of Truth about Trade & Technology--and we all owe him a tremendous debt for having devoted his life to American farming.
Dean grew up in northern Iowa, near the town of Rudd, working in the fields alongside his father. When he started out, all farming was organic--or "primitive," as Dean likes to joke. He still remembers the first time his family used commercial fertilizer: "The corn shot up faster, the fields grew greener, and there was more of everything," he wrote in a 2008 column. "We never looked back."
That’s for sure: When it came to farming, Dean always looked forward.
He also looked outward, becoming an advocate of ordinary farmers. For a decade, he headed the Iowa Farm Bureau.
That was when I first met him. I was a state delegate to a convention. We were debating some issue, and Dean had left the room for a few minutes. While he was gone, we voted to take a certain action. When Dean came back, he heard what we had done. Then he calmly explained why we were mistaken.
We knew he was right. We reversed our decision. He had turned us around 180 degrees. He was wise and clear-thinking.
Dean went on to become president of the American Farm Bureau, winning seven consecutive two-year terms.
This was when global leaders in agriculture came to know Dean. He represented the United States in world trade talks, making sure that American farmers gained access to new markets. Yet he always remembered that trade talks are a two-way street, and he took the time to understand the agricultural interests of other countries. Dean was successful because he’s such an excellent listener--the very opposite of the "ugly American" stereotype.
Dean may have traveled the world, but he never lost sight of where he came from. He continued to grow corn and soybeans and raise hogs, back near the town of Rudd. He still cheers for the St. Louis Cardinals and loves to eat at Cracker Barrel.
After he left the AFB, Dean joined Truth about Trade & Technology, an organization that I had helped form with a few fellow farmers. We really needed his help.
We had sensed the need for a farmer-led group that would seek to improve America’s ability to sell its goods and services across borders. We also wanted farmers in the United States and around the world to enjoy access to advanced technologies, including genetically modified crops.
We had a grand vision--but knew we needed broader expertise to implement it and make a difference.
That changed when Dean joined TATT. With the most respected voice in agriculture, he jump-started the organization--and turned it into a deliberative and influential promoter of everything from free-trade agreements to consumer acceptance of biotechnology.
Now Dean has stepped down as chairman, but it would be wrong to conclude that he has retired. Just last week, he wrote a column for TATT on the importance of Trade Promotion Authority as TATT’s Chairman Emeritus. I’m sure we’ll hear from him again soon.
In 2007, the board of TATT created the Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement Award, honoring a global farmer who has demonstrated "strong leadership, vision, and resolve in advancing the rights of all farmers to choose the technology and tools that will improve the quality, quantity, and availability of agricultural products around the world." Next month, we’ll give it away for the sixth time.
We thought the award would be a great way to recognize a deserving recipient as well as show how much Dean has meant to farmers in the United States and abroad.
We created the Kleckner Award when Dean was out of the room. Nobody thought for a second to reverse the decision.
Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and other grains with his brother on a family farm based in North Central Iowa. Bill volunteers as a board member and serves as Chairman for Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org