Following the retirement of Tom Sleight, the former US Grains Council (USCG) president and CEO, Ryan LeGrand has taken over that role. His selection was announced in May, and he commenced in mid-June.
Previously, LeGrand was director of the USGC office in Mexico City.
Before beginning his tenure with the council in 2015, LeGrand worked as a grain trader in the private sector.
“It was in my blood from an early age, and I always knew that I wanted to work in some field in agriculture,” LeGrand told FeedNavigator.
When asked why he shifted from the private agriculture industry to the Council, he said, for him, it all comes down to one word - purpose.
“There’s a real purpose in this job,” he said. “I’m not saying this to disparage any of the private companies I’ve worked for, but to me … there’s a calling when you’re working for an entire industry rather than for the bottom line of one company. I’ve made a lot of relationships and worked for some great companies in the ag space, but the opportunity to represent the US farmer in foreign markets is really something that appeals to me.”
He acknowledged the US grain and ethanol markets are facing some challenges:
“Ethanol margins are not good, on-farm margins, producer margins aren’t good," he said. “The challenges are many and we need a united front involving the producer, agribusiness, the government and the USGC working to defend foreign markets for US grains.”
About 95% of the world’s population is outside of the US and when there is “exponential middle-class growth”, it will happen in other countries, he said.
“Those are people who are going to be buying protein, and to produce that protein we need grains.”
Lessons from Mexico and changing role
LeGrand transitioned from work as a grain trader to working for the council in 2015 in Mexico, a position that has helped inform his new role. Being in that post during the negotiations on the revamped North American Trade Agreement (USMCA) helped him develop a relationship with industry members there.
“We really dug in and joined forces with the Mexican industry, the livestock industry, and grain importers. We sent a clear message to both of our countries that we both benefit from free trade and that we wanted to maintain this free trade, and that, if we did, our growth would only continue,” he said. “I’m really proud of the work we did with industry, maintaining a united front throughout the NAFTA re-negotiations and I think we’ve come out with a stronger relationship because of it.”
Mexico is an important market for the US and is a top export destination for corn, dried distillers’ grains (DDGS) and barley along with being the second-largest market for US sorghum, he said.
“Being in a mature market like that and, even before being the director, having traded grains to Mexico for many years, it prepared me to come to this office and understand the challenges of shipping grains and byproducts,” he said.
Moving from being a director to being council president has brought some changes – including less free time, LeGrand said. Adding, “not that I had a lot, to begin with.”
However, the transition has been going well.
“We have a lot of stakeholders that I didn’t have as much interaction with previously – our state and national checkoff organizations that form a part of our membership, as well as agribusiness, our partner, the USDA and its Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS),” he said.
“I’m meeting a lot of people, learning how to move around in Washington, meeting the DC staff and understanding what their needs are, and getting out to the different states,” he said. “It’s been a hectic couple of months just getting to know everybody, how we operate around the world, and looking to see how we can continue the momentum that Tom built, and take it to the next level.”
Market support, development and expansion
In his first year leading the USCG, LeGrand said his priorities include market development, and pushing ethanol.
“Ethanol is the top priority right now,” he said. “There are some markets out there that we’re just getting into, that we’d really like to see larger shipments to, or the beginning of shipments to, depending on where you’re looking.”
“So, in a year’s time, I want to see some victories on the ethanol front,” he added.
However, the organization is also focused on supporting the current Trump administration and the US Trade Representative (USTR) as they address trade issue and negotiate new deals, he said. The majority of US grain shipments tend to go to countries where free trade agreements have been established.
“We need to continue to have a seat at the table and negotiate access for our grains and our products around the world; that’s something I really want to see happen,” he added.
“We’ve lost some market share to competitors in recent years, and I’m a trader by nature – that’s what I’ve always done – I don’t like to lose sales to anyone, that doesn’t sit well with me,” LeGrand said. “That’s something we want to do, we want to claw back some of the market share we’ve lost over the years, and we’ll look to do that in a number of ways.”
Now the US, Mexico and Canada Agreement (USMCA) has been signed, there is USGC support to see it ratified, to improve confidence for other countries to trade with the US, he said.
“Southeast Asia is really big, and it may have the attention of the government, and I hope it does – just look at countries like Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam - they’re all very promising,” he continued.
There are tariffs on several feed grains that the USCG would like to see removed through trade agreements – like tariffs on corn and sorghum in Vietnam, LeGrand said.
"Sorghum has lost market share, with China and Mexico sales dropping over the past couple of years; we need to find more markets for sorghum that would be really big for producers that are struggling to move crops right now.”