The corn visionary:
DES MOINES – Ever heard of Walter Goeppinger? Even if the Boone-area farmer’s name doesn’t sound familiar, organizations like Iowa Corn, the National Corn Growers Association and the U.S. Grains Council that impact thousands of lives daily in Iowa and around the globe are a direct legacy of this visionary ag leader.
As Iowa Corn leaders celebrated the organization’s 50th anniversary in 2017, the group hosted a gala dinner at the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates on Dec. 18 in Des Moines to honor the man who started it all.
“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 officer of Iowa Corn.
Born in 1911, Goeppinger was a lifelong resident of Boone, a 1933 Iowa State College graduate and a visionary leader for agriculture. Throughout his life, he was actively engaged in promoting U.S. ag products globally, making numerous trips to more than 60 countries on behalf of farmers.
“Walter not only founded the Iowa Corn Growers Association and the National Corn Growers Association, but he also helped found the organization charged with exporting our grain and red meat,” Floss said. “He served as the first chairman of what is now called the U.S. Grains Council and helped form strong relationships with many of the international customers Iowa corn farmers have yet today.”
When pigs fly
These accomplishments began to take root in 1957, when Goeppinger founded the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) and served as its first president -a position he held for 17 years before serving as chairman of the board for an additional three years.
“NCGA now has more than 40,000 members,” said Floss, who noted that NCGA celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2017. “Today, there are 28 states with corn grower associations and checkoff programs federated with the NCGA, all with a similar mission of creating opportunities for long-term corn farmer profitability.”
Goeppinger’s first major milestone on the international stage occurred in 1959 with the Iowa Hog Lift. During the late summer of 1959, two huge typhoons hit Japan in less than a month, devastating much of Japan’s Yamanashi Prefecture, an agricultural region northwest of Tokyo.
When Iowans heard about Yamanashi’s plight, farmers from around the state donated hogs and shipped them by truck to Des Moines, where they were flown to Japan. Goeppinger became chairman and organizer of 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, Goeppinger made several trips to Washington, D.C. to negotiate with the Commodity Credit Corporation officers for 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.”
Within three years of the Iowa Hog Lift, more than 500 hogs had been produced from the original 35 hogs from Iowa. Within nine years, there were 500,000 hogs in Japan whose lineage could be traced to the Iowa Hog Lift.
In response to Iowans’ generosity, the government of Yamanashi prefecture, represented by Gov. Hisoshi Amano and his wife, traveled to Iowa and stayed with the Goeppinger family, In 1962, Japan’s leaders expressed their gratitude by presenting to the people of Iowa a bronze temple bell cast with bold letters telling the story of the typhoon and Iowa’s generosity in assisting the storm-ravaged prefecture. This Bell of Peace and Friendship is located in the formal garden of the state capitol in Des Moines. The bell hangs in its own pagoda, which was also shipped from Yamanashi, Floss noted.
“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, which enable opportunities to trade U.S. ag products around the globe,” Floss said. “Interestingly, Japan remains one of the top markets for both U.S. corn and pork.”
Leaving a legacy through Iowa Corn
The Iowa Hog Lift led Goeppinger in 1960 to serve as formation chairman and first president of the U.S. Feed Grains Council (now known as the U.S. Grains Council). This organization 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 alike.
Goeppinger didn’t stop there. In 1967, he built on the success of the NCGA, which he helped establish in 1957, and founded the Iowa Corn Growers Association. He also served as Iowa Corn’s first president from 1967-1974.
“Goeppinger conferred personally with every U.S. president from Eisenhower through Carter regarding farm and food policy,” said Floss, who added that President John F. Kennedy offered Goeppinger the position of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.
During his vibrant career, Goeppinger also connected with another Iowa-born ag visionary, Dr. Norman Borlaug. Intrigued by Goeppinger’s intellectual curiosity and his on-farm corn research 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 of the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce American Ag Committee.
Goeppinger remained active in international ag affairs well into his later years. “In 1989, Goeppinger published a book titled ‘Latin America’s Gathering Storm – and Ours,'” Floss said. “The forward was written by none other than Dr. Norman Borlaug.”
While Goeppinger passed away in 2001, he was represented by members of his family during Iowa Corn’s 50th anniversary gala dinner in Des Moines.
“We stand on the shoulders of giants,” said Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey as he addressed 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.”
That future includes a world where Iowa farmers continue to lead the way, noted Roger Zylstra, a past president of Iowa Corn who has farmed in Jasper County for more than 40 years.
“It’s amazing to think that all of these organizations and programs like Iowa Corn are going strong today because of one farmer from Iowa. “Walter Goeppinger raised the bar high as we carry on this legacy,” he said.
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