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Reflections on NSA Board Experience

Tuesday, October 22, 2019
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Art Ridl and Jeff Oberholtzer were recognized for their 12 years on the NSA Board of Directors at the 2019 Summer Seminar.
       After serving 12 years on the National Sunflower Association Board of Directors, North Dakota producers Art Ridl and Jeff Oberholtzer were honored for their years of service at the NSA’s Summer Seminar in Medora in June. Both men were first elected to the board in 2007.  Ridl additionally served as president and chairman during his tenure on the NSA board.
       Jody Kerzman visited with these two individuals about their time on the board, their biggest accomplishments — and what they envision for the future of sunflower and the NSA.
In 2007, at age 23, Jeff Oberholtzer became the youngest person to ever serve on the NSA's board. Having 'retired' from thh board at at 36, he plans to stay active in ag orginzations.
Jeff Oberholtzer
       In 2007, Jeff Oberholtzer was 23 years old, working with his dad, Jerry, on their family farm near Mohall, N.D., and looking for ways to be more involved in agriculture.  While attending a Renville-Bottineau Ag Improvement Association board meeting, Oberholtzer was elected Renville County’s sunflower representative to the North Dakota Oilseeds Council.  Then he was elected District 6 sunflower representative, which landed him a spot on the North Dakota Oilseeds Council and NSA Board of Directors. He became the youngest person to ever serve on the board.
       “I was in my mid-20s,” recalls Oberholtzer.  “Most of the guys on the board with me were in their 50s.  So, I was able to provide a whole different perspective.                                             
       “Arnold Woodbury was on the board with me; there was probably a 40-year age difference between us, but we learned things from each other.  Really, just being able to visit with other producers and find out what they’re doing and how that might work on my place was a huge benefit. 
       “But being on the board was a little intimidating at first,” he admits.  “It took me at least a year to catch on to how everything went and what was being talked about.  Once I got the hang of it,
it was such a valuable learning experience.”
       Oberholtzer and his dad farm near Mohall, in north central North Dakota. For a couple of his years on the board, the Oberholtzer farm was too wet to plant sunflower.  But when Mother Nature cooperates, they plant as many as 1,600 acres of this crop.
       “We’ve always grown oils,” Jeff relates.  “We grew NuSuns, then switched to high oleic, and now we’re back to NuSuns again. We have good relationships with the crushers and with the bird food companies, so we sell to both, depending on the prices,” he says.  “We have not grown confection sunflower, but if there’s a chance or an opportunity, we might try them.”
       While many in his area have gone away from sunflower, Oberholtzer says he’s committed to the crop.
       “We invested in new headers this year, so we’re going to be growing sunflower for a while,” he says with a laugh. “This year our crop looked nice, and we decided it was time to upgrade our 1978 and 1980 model headers.  It looks like this might be a year that sunflower really pay off, and we’re anxious to test these new headers out.” 
       Oberholtzer says his time on the NSA board gave him a chance to learn about more than just growing a good sunflower crop.  He says learning about the industry and research sides also created new opportunities on his farm.
       “Dad and I worked with NDSU on wireworm research,” he says.  “They had plots at our place multiple times, and we did a fertility study on our land, too. That all came about because these were issues we talked about in our board meetings. They were talking about issues that we were dealing with on our farm, so we were happy to help those researchers out however we could. 
       “That first wireworm study led to seed trials, treatment trials and more. That research has a direct benefit to me as a producer.  It’s farmer dollars being used to help farmers.  That’s what you want your checkoff dollars to be used for. We need to make sure people know and understand that.”
       When he thinks about the past 12 years, Oberholtzer says he’s had accomplishments and opportunities he credits to the NSA.
       “I had the honor of representing the state and the sunflower industry at a farm bill hearing in Mohall.  I was one of four people that presented at that hearing.  I never would have had that opportunity if I hadn’t been on the board,” he says.  “I got to travel to meetings in Colorado and South Dakota and see how they do things there. I brought home a few ideas for our operation.
       “The biggest accomplishment that sticks with me is when we provided the (Fargo-based USDA) ARS unit with a new plot planter and plot combine.  The discussions we had about the need for that — and the direct benefit that has been to us growers — is something I’m really proud of.”
       Tioga, N.D., producer T.J. Halverson took Oberholtzer’s spot on the board. Oberholtzer has already been elected to another local board; he’s now serving a one-year term on the Farm Credit Nominating Committee.  It’s part of his desire to always stay involved and never stop learning new things.
       “I’ll always stay involved because some of the best things you can learn to make your farm better you don’t learn in the field.  You learn those things from other producers and people in the industry. It’s important to stay involved in ag organizations.”
       Oberholtzer is quick to add that he’s open to the idea of serving another 12-year term on the NSA Board of Directors down the road.
       “It was an experience I thoroughly enjoyed.  I couldn’t move up the ranks because of the way our operation is set up; I just couldn’t be gone from the farm that much.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to give the time that was needed to do the job in a way that would be beneficial to the industry.  But I would have liked to have been vice president, president and chairman.  I still might like to do that.                                                          
       “So, I’m not ruling anything out.  I might be back on the board.  I’m only 36-years old!”

A younger Art Ridl appeared in this seed company advertisement in the 1985 issue of The Sunflower. He grew his first crop of sunflower in 1979 and has had 'flowers in his rotation ever since. 
Art Ridl
       When Dickinson, N.D., producer Art Ridl was elected District 7 sunflower representative to the North Dakota Oilseeds Council in 2007, he was in brand new territory.
       “I’d never been on a board before,” says Ridl.  “I’d been a county rep before, but I’d never served on a board like the National Sunflower Association or the North Dakota Oilseeds Council.  I got to know Lloyd Klein pretty well while he was on the NSA board, and from what he told me, I thought it was something I’d be interested in.  When his term was up, my kids were grown so I figured it was time for me to give of my time and step up and give like others had done.”
       Ridl remembers being nervous and intimidated for his first NSA Board of Directors meeting, but he quickly realized this was where he belonged.
       “When I got on the board I was very shy, and I was very quiet for that first year,” he recalls.  “I just soaked it all in and didn’t talk much.  I probably got to know John McLean (of Cargill, West Fargo) the best that first year.  I sat next to him at the meetings, and he was very welcoming.”
       Ridl settled into his role on the board easily, and quickly climbed the ranks; he was elected second vice president in December 2011.  He went on to be first vice president, president — and, in April 2019, finished his NSA tenure as board chairman.
       “I had no idea I’d climb the ranks!”
       His 12 years on the board went by faster than Ridl expected. The years were filled with meetings, research discussions and trips to promote sunflower.  
       “I went to Washington, D.C. for a farm bill meeting the first year I was on the board,” Ridl recounts.  “I went to Spain and Turkey on trade missions with the NSA.  We were there to promote our product, and to share about our U.S.-grown sunflower.  We met with people that are buying our products and who are really interested in our sunflower.  It was neat to hear them talk about how our sunflower is such a high quality, and it was an honor to represent growers on those missions.”
       But perhaps his most valuable lessons as a board member came from the conversations he had with other producers, researchers and industry representatives. 
       “I learned a lot just by listening. I got to know processors, seed, chemical and industry representatives.  They had a lot of good ideas that I then took home to our farm,” Ridl says.  “To me, that’s a big benefit for farmers like me. To be able to talk with people from all different aspects of the sunflower industry was huge. It made me a better farmer.”
       Sunflower has been a constant on Ridl’s southwestern North Dakota farm since 1979.
       “This is our 40th year growing sunflower,” he says.  “I was farming with my dad and two of my brothers when we decided to give sunflower a try.  The first year we planted sunflower we used an eight-row planter.  We were conventional till at the time, so we worked all the ground.  We cultivated the crop. Between corn and sunflower, I was cultivating 1,500 acres a year.”
       The Ridls switched to no-till in the ’90s, a change that has made growing sunflower easier.  Ridl, who now farms with one of his brothers and two of his own sons, says they plant sunflower on 20-25% of their cropland every year. 
       “It’s a crop that works well for us. Even in a year like this one, where it’s been so wet and some of our crops have not fared so well, our sunflower still looks to be a really good crop.
       “Sunflower has always been one of our most profitable crops, year after year. I hope the acreage stays up so processors can keep their customers happy with the amount of product we can supply.  I see the industry staying strong. There is still work to be done when it comes to getting our sunflower oil on more store shelves. I hope the NSA will continue working toward making that happen.  I’d like people to be able to buy a bottle of high-oleic sunflower oil.  I think once they see what it can do, they will keep buying it.”
       Ridl is confident his replacement, Josh Greff of Regent, N.D., will be a great addition to the NSA Board of Directors. 
       “I was at his first meeting, and I was impressed at how he jumped right in and added to the conversations and asked questions.  It’s easier to step away knowing he is there and is anxious to continue the work we’ve done on the board,” says Ridl. 
       “But that last meeting was a weird day.  It just hit me that I wouldn’t be at those meetings anymore.  I kind of felt like I was losing my best friends. 
       “It was just an awesome 12 years.”                                                                         
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