Unifying the Voice of America’s Farmers

During his 30 years serving farmers in agricultural policy and economic and trade development, Chris Novak says he’s seen a fundamental shift in how farmers perceive themselves.

Today farmers produce food for consumers, not just commodities” Novak says. “Consumers have a stronger need and desire to know where and how their food was produced. The challenge is still fairly new for us. Farmers aren’t the first to jump on Instagram to tell their stories to urban neighbors and friends.”

Novak (’87 public service and administration in agriculture) is the chief executive officer at the National Corn Growers Association, a member of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA).

Randy Krotz, chief executive officer for USFRA, says there is no better advocate for agriculture than Novak.

“His commitment goes back to day one—he was one of the original thought leaders who created USFRA in 2010. He and four or five other commodity leaders decided it was time for the industry to come together and speak in one voice to consumers,” Krotz says.

USFRA consists of about 100 farmer and rancher led organizations and agricultural partners working to engage in dialogue with consumers who have questions about how today’s food is grown and raised. USFRA’s mission declares its commitment to increasing confidence and trust in modern agriculture. Novak chairs the alliance’s advisory council, which focuses on business development, fundraising and building alliance partnerships.

“My peers and I realized this wasn’t a corn or soy issue. It wasn’t a rice, cotton or pork issue. We were facing these issues alone, but we came to the realization that we would be stronger together. It’s in all of our interests to work together to ensure we are talking to consumers in venues where they are looking and listening and in a language they can understand,” Novak says.

It’s a mission that’s a calling of sorts for Novak. He first joined the agricultural policy and advocacy arena as an Iowa State student interning in Sen. Charles Grassley’s office during his final semester of college in 1987.

“My PSA (public service and administration in agriculture) training was perfect for looking at the human side of the equation and understanding the politics and competing factors behind agriculture and environmental policy,” he says.

From Capitol Hill, Novak’s career moved to farm organizations and agribusinesses serving in the areas of farm policy, environmental services, trade, science communication and biotechnology. He joined the National Corn Growers in October 2014, after six years as CEO of the National Pork Board. Before his work with the Pork Board he served as executive director of the Indiana Soybean Alliance, the Indiana Corn Marketing Council and the Indiana Corn Growers Association. He also spent three years with Syngenta as manager of science communication. He completed his law degree at the University of Iowa and a master’s in business administration from Purdue University.

Novak identifies two main priorities for commodity organizations. “One, engage in international trade discussions at a federal level to ensure farmers’ access to foreign markets. Two, tell agriculture’s story. Companies are making decisions about how they market products to consumers, and these decisions impact how consumers feel crops and livestock on our farms should be produced. The challenge is to help these companies make informed decisions.”

When Novak thinks of his family farm near Marion, Iowa, where he grew up and his father still lives, he marvels at the technological advancements those fields have seen.

“From my grandfather’s horses and wagons, to two-cylinder tractors, to today’s auto-steered, GPS, computer-controlled tractors, the common denominator in technological advancement has been the research and analysis coming from land- grant universities like Iowa State University.”

The industry needs sound science to meet agriculture’s future challenges and to inform consumers and companies that market to consumers, says Novak.

“It is fundamental that we ensure infrastructure on campuses and research funding for the next generation of scientists,” he says. “We need to look at ag research and how we can raise its prominence in the next Farm Bill.”

Novak is part of a national effort, led by Iowa State University’s Wendy Wintersteen, endowed dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, to raise the profile of agricultural research funding.

Together they co-chaired a roundtable meeting of leaders of national agricultural commodity organizations in November in Washington D.C. The meeting is one of a series of national discussions on the topic of exploring a unifying message to make federal investment in food, agriculture and natural resources research a higher priority.

Since 2011, USFRA has been working to build trust in American agriculture by understanding the perceptions of consumers and influencers about how food is grown and raised. Each year, with checkoff support from various commodities, they have conducted in- depth research to achieve this goal.