The good old farmboy network

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Most folks are familiar with the Good old boy network, a loose collection of family and friends that can be tapped for personal or business needs. Few, however, know that agriculture has it own network, the good old farmboy network.

GOFs might include cattle jockeys, co-op board members, college alums and maybe even a state senator. GOFs are everywhere; you just don’t see ‘em.

Take the GOF that has Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences as its center and shares ag interests from Ames, Iowa to Dar-es-Salaam, the capital of Tanzania.

The nexus of this network is a Chicago venture called the Rural American Fund. The fund, explains its website, “focuses on making partnership investments in growing middle-market rural American companies.” (Links to all documents cited here are posted at www.farmandfoodfile.com.)

Partners

RAF is small and has only four “strategic limited partners.” One is Bruce Rastetter, an Iowa farmboy who’s made millions in pork and ethanol and now serves as president pro-tem of the Iowa Board of Regents, the body that governs Iowa State University.

Another RAF partner is Roger C. Underwood, another Iowa farmboy who co-founded Becker Underwood, “the world’s leading supplier of non-pesticide specialty chemical and biological products” with “nearly $200 million in sales annually.”

ISU is a second tie between the two. While Rastetter, a University of Iowa graduate, is a university regent, Underwood is both an ISU ag alum and rainmaker: He helped direct the university’s “Campaign Iowa State,” a fundraising drive that gathered more than $850 million to “propel the university to new heights.”

Underwood serves on ISU’s Foundation board of directors and the ag college’s advisory committee. He and his wife also “established the Ag Entrepreneurship Initiative with a $1.6 million gift,” in 2005. (In 2007, Rastetter gave ISU nearly $2 million to endow the Bruce Rastetter Chair of Ag Entrepreneurship at the ag college.)

Fundraising

ISU watchers also whisper that Underwood’s fundraising prowess — if not his own wallet — was behind the “first-of-its-kind endowed deanship” at ISU’s ag school “thanks to a $3 million gift from an anonymous donor.” The “first holder” of the post is ISU’s current ag dean, Wendy Wintersteen.

The other Rural American Fund strategic partners are Iowa farmboys, too — Jeffrey Becker, Underwood’s business partner, and J.D. Schlieman, another ISU ag alum who worked 10 years for Heartland Pork and, later, was president of Hawkeye Energy. Both were Rastetter-controlled companies and both were sold.

There’s more.

Investment

Another tie is Tim Callahan, a managing director for Pharos Financial Group in Dubai. Pharos announced Jan. 21, 2010, it would invest $350 million in farmland in “developing nations to secure food supplies.” One investment, the “leasing of 50,000 hectares of land in Tanzania,” would be “complete by the end of the year.”

Shortly thereafter, AgriSol Energy, a closely-held Rastetter enterprise, made public its plans to develop vast tracts of Tanzanian farmland, also.

Callahan’s role in the deal is unclear but perfectly clear is his past employment with Rastetter. He served as adviser to Summit Group, Rastetter’s Iowa farming operation, was a “principal at AgriSol Energy, a large scale farming, livestock and extension/outreach” — ISU’s role — “project in Tanzania” and was chief financial officer of Hawkeye Energy, the nation’s third largest ethanol maker controlled by Rastetter.

Before that, he was a mergers and acquisitions specialist at Credit Suisse, an international investment bank.

Bankruptcy

All that experience likely came in handy when, in Dec. 2009, Hawkeye Energy Holdings jumped into a $700 million, Chapter 11 bankruptcy that “essentially turned operations over to a consortium of lenders led by” — you guessed it — Credit Suisse. (A Koch Industries’ subsidiary bought Hawkeye in 2011.)

If there are connections between all these farmboys, ISU and an enormous Tanzanian farmland deal, “endowed” Dean Wintersteen ain’t buying it. In a Jan. 10, 2012 memo to ISU staff, Wintersteen denied the university had any “agreement” or “contract” with the principles of the Tanzanian deal.

Technically, she’s right. But a review of it, ISU’s active role in its development and any real or perceived conflict of interest between it, influential alums and a regent is clearly in order.

ISU’s new president, Steven Leath, who takes over Feb. 1, could make it a priority.

Tricky

It wouldn’t be easy. After all, rainmaker Underwood co-chaired the process that that yielded Leath and Tanzanian investor Rastetter was one of two Iowa regents on the 18-member search committee.

© 2012 ag comm

About the Author

Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com More Stories by Alan Guebert

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