Fresh off a morning-long strategic planning meeting on a dreary January morning, Chris Jahn, recently hired president of The Fertilizer Institute (TFI), already seems comfortable in his new role. Jahn took over the job from Ford West in September following West’s retirement, and his first four months have been focused on meeting members, getting up to date on key issues and working with his staff to establish priorities and a plan moving forward.
In addition to the core priorities facing the fertilizer industry, Jahn is also managing the loss of institutional knowledge at TFI with the departure of both West and Pam Guffain, who retired at the end of 2013 after 30 years as government affairs specialist. It’s a challenge, but also an opportunity to shape the staff to best address TFI’s priorities.
“We have an opportunity to reevaluate positions and priorities to make sure that we are serving our members and helping them succeed,” says Jahn. “What they need from us is probably different than three or five years ago. Reorganizing the government affairs department is first priority, and several vacancies will be filled based on the results of the strategic plan,” he says.
Jahn was a political science major in college and spent 10 years deep in the churn of Washington politics, starting as an intern and eventually serving as chief of staff for a U.S. senator. “I loved my time on the Hill, and got to do a lot of interesting things,” says Jahn. “Knowing how things get done in this town is important. Those experiences, combined with two stints in industry organizations prior to coming here, have really positioned me for this opportunity at TFI.”
“I was excited about the opportunity to make a positive difference in an industry that does so much for our country, and people around the world,” he adds. “There are a lot of different places to work in DC, but this is a place where you can feel good about the mission of the organization, and our members. All of that was important to me.”
Last April’s disaster at the Adair Grain facility in West, TX, that killed 15 people was unfolding as Jahn was going through the interview process, so he was well aware of what one of the organization’s big challenges moving forward would be. President Barack Obama’s August 1, 2013, executive order seeking recommendations for tighter regulations on fertilizer and chemical facilities has put the issue front and center among TFI priorities in 2014.
“If you look at the executive order and all that entails from EPA, OSHA [The Occupational Safety & Health Administration], Homeland Security and USDA among others, this clearly needs to be a huge priority,” says Jahn. “There are timelines that will fall through the spring and later in the year, so it’s front and center for TFI.”
The Agricultural Retailers Association and TFI have been working diligently since last summer to develop a coordinated response to the call for additional regulatory oversight called ResponsibleAg. Jahn describes ResponsibleAg as a “voluntary industry program focused on federal compliance with the laws and regulations that are applicable to the fertilizer industry and focused on the retail segment.” The boards of both organizations were set to review the charter for this new initiative this month.
“ResponsibleAg is really all about two goals: first, ensuring that what happened to West Fertilizer never happens again, and two, highlighting the people and businesses in the industry that are doing business the right way,” explains Jahn. “This will help with the image challenges we face in the public, and will create a political response to the executive order. We are taking this on to ensure that the industry is truly doing the right things and committed to continuous improvement.
“If you look at the polling data pertaining to perception of the fertilizer industry,” he continues, “80% of the public supports additional regulation for the industry, because less than 20% think the industry is safe and secure. TFI has an obligation to educate government decision makers that this is not the case.”
A key aspect of ResponsibleAg will involve retailers undergoing voluntary third party assessments. “Assuming it is approved we will be working on a timeline to aggressively roll out the program,” says Jahn. “It has required a lot of outreach, and over the past few months we have engaged with more than 60 different stakeholders at every level of the industry, both local and national. We anticipate broad-based support.”
TFI is also reaffirming its commitment to safe operations of fertilizer facilities by endorsing the utilization of a Compliance Assistance tool for agricultural retail facilities. Developed by the non-profit Asmark Institute, retailers can download the tool and use its recommendations to help control risk and support continuous improvement.
“We have received a good response from regulators and legislators when we talk about what we have done so far,” says Jahn. “The Compliance Assistance tool has well over 1,000 downloads. And we’ll keep them posted on our progress with ResponsibleAg. We believe that being successful with this initiative will carry a lot of weight, and they’ll understand that we will be able to touch thousands of facilities faster than any government entity.”
Jahn also points out that it’s vitally important to keep the momentum going on agricultural development while the economy continues to be sluggish in so many other industry segments. At a recent site visit to a CF Industries nitrogen manufacturing plant in Louisiana, additional capacity under construction has created 1,700 contractor jobs and will increase production by 50%. Additional jobs will be added on a permanent basis when the plant comes on line.
“Agriculture continues to be a positive contributor to the U.S. economy, and we need to make sure that the government doesn’t create policy that impedes this growth,” says Jahn.
4R Continues Strong
While Jahn and his staff are still working out particulars on key agenda items for 2014 and beyond, topping the list for TFI will always be advocacy and communicating with government and the public about the benefits of fertilizer. To that end, the 4R fertilizer program has continued to grow in acceptance and understanding both inside and outside the industry.
Substantial outreach efforts to regional and local ag associations and organizations has resulted in broad use of the 4R program, an important success story given the way ag issues are evolving today.
“Just look at water quality,” notes Jahn. “It’s a complicated issue that is playing out both nationally and locally, and that’s why 4R is so important. It allows us to play in both places and make a significant contribution to the discussion. We’ve also brought in credible partners from outside fertilizer, such as the Nature Conservancy and John Deere. It speaks to the robustness of the program.”
TFI Director of Stewardship Programs Lara Moody has traveled extensively in support of 4R, and has an equally rigorous itinerary scheduled for 2014 as well.
The Nutrients For Life Foundation, the fertilizer industry’s educational non-profit that provides information and resources to educators and the public about the vital role fertilizers play in feeding our world, is getting a boost in outreach through a deal it recently signed with Discovery Education, a division of Discovery Communications which owns cable television’s popular Discovery Channel.
The Foundation signed a deal with Discovery that will make the Foundation’s science-based content available to thousands of educators that use the Discovery Channel resources in their teaching plans. “They are in the process of digitizing the great content we have in our curriculum,” says Jahn. “Then, they are going to be able to push that content through their network to teachers throughout the country, potentially helping us reach millions of students with our materials. It expands our reach in a way that has never happened before. It’s really an exciting opportunity.”