The corn was about waist-high in much of Iowa last week, when Dean Kleckner passed away at the age of 82.
That’s probably how Dean would like his eulogy to begin: with a crop report.
He always started meetings this way. It didn’t matter if he was seeing old neighbors in his hometown of Rudd in north-central Iowa or chairing a roundtable of Brazilians, Filipinos, and Kenyans at the World Food Prize.
Whenever he met farmers, which was constantly, he wanted to learn about local conditions. I must have witnessed this hundreds of times over the years. I soon realized that his purpose was more than merely to break the ice with strangers. He sincerely wanted to know about the challenges and opportunities that farmers face everywhere.
Dean devoted his life to advancing the interests of agriculture, trying to make it easier for farmers to grow excellent crops in their fields and to sell what they grow wherever they could – from the farmers’ markets in their towns to customers on the other side of the world. He spoke up for farmers and free trade everywhere and every chance he could
As a young farm leader, Dean started his leadership journey at the Floyd County Farm Bureau, served for a decade as president of the Iowa Farm Bureau, and was elected to a pair of seven-year terms as president of the American Farm Bureau. He capped off his career with a dozen years as chairman of a nonprofit advocacy group called Truth about Trade & Technology / Global Farmer Network.
I worked with Dean most closely at Truth about Trade & Technology, but we had met many years before, when he appointed me to a committee for young farmers and ranchers in Iowa. He never forgot this initial encounter, and sometimes I think he never forgot anyone. He had an amazing ability to remember names and faces as well as to recall the names of your grandchildren and whether, like him, you were a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals.
These skills made Dean an effective participant at international trade talks. In the 1980s, he served as the only farmer on the U.S. advisory team to the negotiations surrounding the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT). Later, he attended meetings of the World Trade Organization in Geneva, Hong Kong, Singapore, Cancun and elsewhere.
Dean once called himself “a teenage organic farmer.” He meant that when he was a boy in the 1940s, his family worked the land without the benefit of tools that many of us take for granted today, such as commercial fertilizers and biotechnology.
Then he made a point—and Dean always had a point. “All food is organic,” he wrote in a column, “whether it’s processed with genetically modified soybeans or grown in a hand-tilled backyard in a fantasyland called Nature’s Valley.”
He had nothing against organic farmers, especially if they found a market for their practices. Yet he also observed that there’s no such thing as “inorganic farming”—and insisted that farmers need cutting-edge technologies if they’re going to feed a growing world with healthy and delicious food.
Dean believed this passionately, and fought for farmers everywhere to have the right to sell their harvests worldwide and the freedom to choose what they grow. Sadly, farmers in many countries don’t enjoy access to the best seeds and technologies that science can offer. Even here in the United States, GM crops have generated misunderstanding and controversy.
Just as his friend and fellow Iowan Norman Borlaug advocated a global Green Revolution, Dean called for a Gene Revolution, in which science helped farmers fight back against their oldest enemies: weeds, pests, disease, drought, and more. This would help both farmers in their struggle to grow more crops on less land and consumers, who value safe and affordable food.
Ten years ago, Truth about Trade and Technology announced that a farmer somewhere had planted the world’s billionth acre of biotech crops—a determination backed up by a detailed analysis of agricultural data from around the globe.
Dean was scheduled to celebrate this milestone at a press conference in Chicago. The night before, though, he set his hotel’s alarm clock for 4 am, so that he could rise in darkness and toast the achievement at the precise moment it was expected to take place. He had saved a bottle of California wine for the occasion.
The only reason I know the story is because he liked to tell it. There was nobody else in the room with him—nobody to provide him with a crop report. Before catching a little more sleep, he probably wondered whether it would rain in Rudd that day.
Something tells me that when Dean reached Heaven’s gates last week, Peter greeted him with a smile and a question: “So how are the corn and beans in Iowa this year?”
Mary Boote was raised on a Northwest Iowa family farm. She serves as CEO for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).