Farming, policy just 'part of the job' for Heisdorffer – Farm Progress

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Willie Vogt | Mar 14, 2022
It’s not possible to say that someone has “seen it all” in any career, but it’s fair to say John Heisdorffer has seen plenty, from farming to policy to new uses for his crops. But sit with him at the kitchen counter talking history, and a visitor gets the sense that this career he’s experienced has been rewarding.
Heisdorffer got his start in farming after high school. “I didn’t really know what I was going to do,” he recalls. “I was working for a neighbor and just got out of high school, but there wasn’t much money for college.”
As often happens in agriculture, tragedy strikes, and that brings transition. In this case, Heisdorffer’s godfather was killed in a farm accident. One of the landowners his godfather worked with had 80 acres of ground, and after the accident, this farm owner wanted someone young to take it over. To get started with that first 80 acres, Heisdorffer traded labor for equipment use from his father.
The farm grew as Heisdorffer’s father retired, and he was able to acquire land, growing the business. Along the way in 1972, soon after he started farming, he married Deanna, and they’re celebrating their 50th anniversary this year.

John Heisdorffer on his farm

INVESTING IN AG: John Heisdorffer started farming in 1971 with 80 acres of rented ground he later acquired. And he’s built from there. Today, his career includes national service and investment in a local biodiesel plant.

INVESTING IN AG: John Heisdorffer started farming in 1971 with 80 acres of rented ground he later acquired. And he’s built from there. Today, his career includes national service and investment in a local biodiesel plant.
Today, the operation includes corn and soybeans, and Heisdorffer, along with his son, Chris, are custom-feeding hogs in a 50-50-partnership. And Chris has added some ground as he moves into the farm. Chris also runs a trucking company. Like his father before, Chris is trading labor for equipment to build his own operation, making him the fifth generation of Heisdorffers to farm.
And the transition progresses. Heisdorffer tells the story of bringing in a new planter. “I bought a new planter five years ago, and we started on this farm here,” he recalls. “At the time, I was dealing with a torn retina, and it was a new planter; so, I suggested Chris make the first round with the new machine.”
Chris made more rounds, and eventually Heisdorffer was reminded that a field cultivator shank needed fixing. “I told him, ‘You’re doing pretty good here — I think I’ll just go [fix that shank],’” Heisdorffer says. “I haven’t planted since.”
Heisdorffer and Deanna recalled the early days when they had small children. They farmed the ground with no hired labor, which means they both spent quality seat time during the busy seasons. “When the kids were small, we used to take a couple tractors to the field, and we would put one kid in each window, with quilts,” he says.
Those early days meant husband and wife shared the chores. They owned an International 2-Plus-2 four-wheel drive — which they still have today.
“I like driving the 2-plus-2,” Deanna says. “I worked ground. I used to haul in grain in the straight truck. Sometimes I’d combine corn. I wouldn’t venture into a combine anymore.”
This farm partnership helped the operation grow and succeed. And as Heisdorffer was tapped for leadership work off the farm, Deanna kept the farm going.
When someone has started in the 1970s and still has a successful farm today, a visitor wonders how the business survived the 1980s.
“It wasn’t easy,” Heisdorffer recalls. “Our local bank was closed, and I had just bought a tractor the day before, and I’d borrowed from that bank.” He recalls a dealer calling to ask if the check he got for that tractor was good. It was.
But a closed bank was one part of the struggle for Heisdorffer back then. He moved to Farm Credit, where he’s been ever since.
Times were tight. “We didn’t buy anything, the farm broke even. It wouldn’t have paid for a loaf of bread — except Deanna had a kennel, and she bred and sold puppies,” Heisdorffer recalls. “When everything else wouldn’t sell, puppies sold. All small-apartment-size dogs.”
Adds Deanna: “I raised Maltese, Yorkies and miniature pinschers.” In essence, that business was meeting a market need and helped keep the farm going.
Heisdorffer is nationally known for his work during his tenure as president of the American Soybean Association, but where did that start? “I went on the local co-op board,” he recalls. “I served there for several years, and all of a sudden I got this call from the [Iowa Soybean Association] asking if I would run for director. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is the big time.’”
But that was just the start — though he did have to learn about how investment in research progress works when he joined ISA. “You send a million dollars to Iowa State for research, next year you ought to have something, right?” he jokes. He learned from those early days that investing in research for new uses and other opportunities was a start, and that it takes time to move the needle.
He later moved to the national American Soybean Association, where he became president in 2018. That timing was challenging, with President Donald Trump involved in a trade dispute with China. There was also work on the Waters of the U.S. and other policy activity that needed attention.
“I was in D.C. a lot that year,” he recalls. “We were pushing the administration about the impact of these trade moves on the soybean markets.”
The work of ASA, with Heisdorffer in the lead, and other commodity groups, led to market facilitation payments to help farms impacted by those trade moves.
At the end of the day, what does Heisdorffer think he learns from that off-farm involvement? “When you’re on a board, like the state board, you’re working with really good farmers, and you can learn so much from them,” Heisdorffer says. “And when you get to the national level, you’re working with farmers from across the country.”
Heisdorffer, who has had a national impact on farm policy through his association work, talks with pride about his farm and working with his son. Truly a Master Farmer at work.
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