Riceland's Jason Brancel: War In Ukraine Driving Up Prices

Riceland's Jason Brancel: War In Ukraine Driving Up Prices
Jason Brancel (Riceland Foods)

Jason Brancel was named president and CEO of farmer-owned cooperative Riceland Foods Inc. of Stuttgart in March, following a nationwide search.

He had previously led agricultural cooperative Agfinity Inc. of Loveland, Colorado, for more than six years. Brancel has 28 years of experience in cooperative leadership, including another six years at Landmark Services Cooperative of Cottage Grove, Wisconsin, in roles including CFO, executive vice president of administration and chief credit officer.

Brancel holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. He has also completed coursework at the Graduate Institute of Cooperative Leadership at the University of Missouri, Cenex Land O’Lakes General Manager’s Leadership Institute, CHS Future 40 Program at the University of Minnesota, FCC Services Advanced Leadership Program and Leading for Results at North Dakota State University.

Brancel describes himself as “a lifelong learner” who can leverage his leadership experiences from large and diverse ag supply and grain marketing cooperatives to benefit Riceland.

How are cooperative members handling global food supply disruptions caused by the war in Ukraine?

Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe by land mass with 57% of that land cultivated. Ukraine was a major exporter of corn, wheat and sunflower oil before the invasion. As a result of the war and geopolitical concerns, the prices of commodities, including corn, wheat and soybeans, are up significantly.

Unfortunately, the largest impact to our farmer members has been the increase in fuel, fertilizer and other crop input prices due to the war and disruptions to global trade. Fuel prices are up over 80% since the beginning of 2022, and fertilizer prices are up over 150% compared with last year.

Farmers are expected to slightly increase soybean plantings in Arkansas and slightly reduce rice and corn acres this year. Given the rise in wheat prices due to the war, there is increased interest in planting wheat this fall.

The war in Ukraine has shined a bright light on the importance of our food supply and its connection to the stability of countries across the globe. At the end of the day, Riceland helps farmers feed the world, and this work has never been more important.

How are the company’s expansion plans coming along in Stuttgart and Jonesboro?

We are well on our way to making the expansion a reality, with the capital project in process. We’re obviously concerned about the logistical and supply chain issues that are plaguing the U.S., but to date we are on track to meet our project timeline targets. If everything goes as planned, we will increase production this fall for phase one and complete phase two by February of next year. 

Can you elaborate on those expansion plans, which involve growing Riceland's value-added packaged business?

The key to Riceland’s success in rice hinges on our ability to do well in both the bulk business and packaged business. Our members realize value from both, and our expansion of value-added packaged business is a nod toward consumer preferences today.

We are increasing our ability to provide consumers with a variety of package types and product varieties to meet them where they are. Whether they are seeking a 20-pound bag of rice for a large family or an eight-ounce package of microwaveable rice for a quick meal, we are positioned to provide them with the rice they need.

Our soybean crush plant that involves soy oil refining and the production of soybean meal for animal nutrition is also doing well through a combination of strong markets and our team’s operational excellence. These are important product lines that further diversify our business, bringing value to our members who are growing soybeans. 

What would it mean for Riceland to export rice to Cuba?

Prior to the 1958 embargo, Cuba was the No. 1 export customer for U.S. rice. Cuba is currently importing large quantities of long-grain milled rice under very favorable credit terms from Venezuela, Vietnam and Brazil. U.S. government studies have estimated that if all trade restrictions with Cuba were removed, the U.S. rice industry would capture 75% of the market within 10 years.

A new export market for long-grain milled rice that size would be of great benefit to Riceland members and the U.S. rice industry. An increase in milled rice exports would stabilize rice acreage in the state, provide greater efficiency for infrastructure utilization and potentially increase farm gate prices. However, today’s geopolitical structure makes this opportunity unlikely at this time.

How have markets for Arkansas rice changed since the start of the pandemic?

Consumer demand for packaged rice skyrocketed during the early days of the pandemic. Through strategy and coordination, our team was able to fulfill the needs of retailers and consumers across the U.S. With panic buying subsiding and the pandemic normalizing into our everyday lives, the domestic market is leveling out to the post-pandemic new normal.

Globally, we continue to monitor the actions of foreign countries that are now more focused on food security for their own populations. The potential for volatility in the export market certainly remains top of mind.

You've said your goal is to inspire your team to provide innovative solutions. Can you give some examples of short-term and long-term solutions that could be implemented at Riceland?

Agriculture, like most sectors across the U.S. economy, continues to consolidate. Much of this is driven by consolidation at the farm level and implementation of technology to drive efficiency. As a leading cooperative, we must constantly challenge the status quo in our business and seek new and different ways to increase relevance to our farmer members and our customers. We are doing that every day by building our agility and increasing the speed of doing business. We are focusing on developing our people, building better processes and implementing technology across the organization. A dynamic work environment is inspiring to our team members. This is both a short- and long-term view.

What similarities or differences are there between Riceland and your previous co-op, Agfinity Inc. of Loveland, Colorado, and the one you led in Wisconsin before that?

There are certainly similarities. We help our members do collectively through a cooperative what they struggle to do individually. Our job is to find out what keeps our members awake at night, and when we can, solve for those challenges. Being a lifelong learner allows me to apply leadership experiences from large and diverse ag supply and grain marketing cooperatives to what we do here at Riceland.

What attracted you to Arkansas and the co-op job here?

When I was contacted and asked to consider this opportunity to lead Riceland, I began researching rather extensively — learning about the history, the purpose, the successes and the opportunities for the business. Riceland has size and scale to be relevant, and truly makes a difference in agriculture — bringing products from farm to table across the globe. My “why” for doing what I do is to make a positive difference and help farmers feed the world. I can do both of those things at Riceland while surrounded by great people in a great state known for its natural beauty.