Meet Arizona Agriculture’s Allan B. Simons
In some ways, you might say that this east coast boy had a curious route to Arizona, from humble beginnings working for two uncles on their small New York dairy farm where his mother was born and raised. But Allan (Al) Simons got to Arizona, planted his roots deeply here, and has been a great agri-business professional for our state’s agriculture.
He served as Executive Vice President of the Arizona Crop Improvement Association (ACIA) the official seed certifying agency in Arizona beginning in 1988 until his retirement from that organization in 2008. ACIA is a non-profit corporation that is affiliated with the University of Arizona College of Agriculture. ACIA serves the state’s seed industry and its growers by verification of the varietal identity and purity of many kinds of crop seeds according to state and national standards.
During his ACIA career, Simons served on the executive committee of the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies (AOSCA) in the U.S., which represents all U.S. state certifying authorities. He served as AOSCA’s president when it reorganized to feature a full-time national staff during 2003-2005. Another of his most appreciated roles while at ACIA was representing the U.S., along with two other ORCD seed scheme personnel during a 3-day tour of Mexico’s official seed to evaluate Mexico’s government and private seed certification rules and practices.
He was appointed to the part-time role of executive director of the Arizona Grain Research and Promotion Council (AGRPC) in 1994 and currently continues in this role. AGRPC is a state agency, authorized by the legislature, that collects assessment fees from the state’s barley and wheat growers. These funds are used by the Council to finance small grain research projects at the University of Arizona, support various organizations in their agricultural promotion and education efforts, and promote the domestic and export sales of Arizona’s unique Desert Durum® wheat. Such assessments are fully refundable to growers who make a modest effort to do so.
The outcome? Simons has been a consistent supporter of Arizona’s superior seed production environment and industries and a representative advocate for agricultural promotional and educational efforts provided by organizations such as Arizona Farm Bureau, Arizona Foundation for Agricultural Literacy, and the Arizona Agribusiness and Water Council.
During a market tour at a Grand Cairo Bakery. Simons has been all over on behalf of the industry.
An agribusiness profile of Allan Simons, Executive Director for the Arizona Grain Council.
An ongoing series of our farm, ranch, and agribusiness families.
Tell us your family’s agriculture roots/background including your dad as an Ag Teacher:
Both of my parents were raised on small farms in the northwestern Finger Lakes region of New York State. I know nothing about my father’s family farm situation as it ended when I was very young, and I never discussed it with the family. I do have a photo of me as a young child sitting on a tractor seat next to my paternal grandfather, who died in 1944. My maternal grandfather died before I was born.
My father was a vocational ag teacher in the local high school in Hemlock, New York when he met my mother, who was five years younger. He was the first of his generation to attend college, earning a B.S. degree from the New York State College of Agriculture at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York (New York’s land grant institution). He had significant musical talent that included playing sousaphone in his high school band and the Cornell marching band. However, he almost completely dropped music from his pursuits for my lifetime.
When I was about three years old, my father left ag teaching for a job working for a private utility company focusing on rural electrification around Ithaca, NY, where I was raised and lived from 1945 until graduating from Cornell in early 1965.
My primary indoctrination to agriculture developed from my family’s frequent visits to the farm where my mother, her sister, and her two older brothers were raised. These brothers operated a small dairy farm south of Rochester, New York. The farm never milked more than 36 cows, so each of my uncle’s wives complimented her family’s income by teaching in local schools.
From an early age, I was able to spend many summer days or weeks at this farm and eventually served as “hired help” in summers before actually performing that role in my late teens and while a student at Cornell – fulfilling “farm practice” requirements needed for graduation from the NY State College of Agriculture.
When you reflect on your childhood, what are some things that stick out most in relation to agriculture and/or your agricultural roots?
Only my mother’s family farm (at the north end of the western Finger Lakes, south of Rochester, New York) was still in the family when I first recall visiting in the late 1940s. It was operated by her two brothers, the younger of whom had served in the US Army in the UK during WW II and graduated from the ag school at Cornell. They milked about 24 cows on the ground level below an L-shaped barn. The upper level was called “the barn floor,” where baled hay was stored.
By 1950, the uncles had built a new cowbarn with 36 stanchions, a milk house with a water cooler to store milk cans, a second level for hay storage, and a new silo. Milk from each cow was poured into buckets in the aisle behind the cows, carried into the milkhouse, and poured into the milk cans, which were picked up about three times per week. Later, a bulk cooling tank was installed to store milk to be pumped into a dairy truck.
The cows were let out to pasture after each milking during warm weather and one of my earliest memories during summer visits was walking to the pasture where they grazed and herding them back to the barnyard. Interestingly, each animal quickly learned to go to its own stanchion where we had previously poured a measure of ground feed in the manger in front of the stanchion. Of course, most cows at any one time had occupied a single stanchion during their “careers.” So, when a new milking cow was introduced, it had limited choices of a stanchion location, but soon learned.
My parents left me at the farm for longer periods in my early teens. My uncles let me drive the tractor that pulled a hay wagon in a field as they tossed bales onto the wagon. That opportunity did wonders for my self-confidence.
One of my uncles would take me fishing in a nearby Finger Lake (Conesus Lake – a water reservoir for the city of Rochester) - something that was well outside my father’s interest. That was the first accomplishment of my lifelong bucket list of activities (the two others were golfing and piloting small planes, both eventually accomplished).
Probably the single most memorable “event” of my teen years at the farm occurred shortly after obtaining my New York driver’s learner permit when I turned 16 in late June. That was the first summer that I was “employed” as a hired man. I kept the precious document in a wallet in my rear pocket. Mid-way through raking a nearby alfalfa field into wind rows before baling, I departed at noon to eat lunch at the farmhouse. Once there, I realized that my wallet was missing. In somewhat of a panic, I drove the tractor back to the field and started driving between the most recent wind row and the unraked hay. I had traveled about 100 yards when I spotted the wallet lying in the stubble. (I visually recall that moment as much as any other in my life.)
My visits and work on the farm prompted me to desire to become a veterinarian. This was especially plausible as my family lived in Ithaca, the location of the New York State College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University. Attendance at Cornell’s College of Agriculture before vet school required experience on working farms. So, my uncles put me on the payroll for $30 per week during my late teen summers and even “gave” me the responsibility of doing all the milking chores (AM and PM) on Sundays of every third weekend.
Perhaps the most outstanding memory of those yearswas solidified as permanent when I received a phone call in March 1990 from a cousin in one of the two farm families, one with whom I had been very close due to similar ages and perspectives. All the farm barns had been lost/destroyed in a fire caused by a strong storm that caused an electrical fault in a barn 140 years in age. Only the farmhouse, dating from 1850-80, where my mother was born and raised, survived. It is now occupied by one of my maternal cousins who inherited the farm and leases much of the land for cattle grazing and hay production.
Tell us about your education and how you ended up getting a Ph.D. in the agriculture field.
My desire to attend vet school, fostered by my experience on the “family farm,” led to me being granted an “early-admittance pre-vet” classification at Cornell. However, my parents couldn’t support me living in a campus dorm, so I traveled across town daily to classes, which basically isolated me from peers other than students in classes. That void, plus the loss of a couple of other personal relationships that summer (1960) eventually contributed to me “achieving” substandard classroom grades. The combination of circumstances basically eliminated my vet school chances (and desires). So, I took a leave from Cornell for the second semester of my freshman year and was again hired by my uncles to work on their farm for the spring-summer of 1961.
I returned to Cornell in the fall of 1961 with no immediate career objective but eventually began to focus on ag education, taking numerous courses to support that career. My grades were good enough to make the dean’s list for several semesters.
With one semester remaining (September 1964 – January 1965), I was scheduled to spend that semester as a vocational agriculture teacher trainee in a school in the Hudson River Valley of New York. However, I was hired for the 1964 summer by one of the professors in Cornell’s Department of Agronomy – as agronomy was a topic that had interested me during several earlier courses. A summer spent being exposed to both field plots and laboratory research prompted me to ask the professor about the possibility of attending graduate school to further study such interests. This professor soon found me an M.S. graduate assistantship in the University of Maryland’s Department of Agronomy, beginning in February 1965.
Once at the U of MD, I was assigned a master’s research project that involved caring for some previously- established plots of orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata) that were being subjected to different soil temperatures and shading treatments. Orchard grass is a commonly planted forage specie in the northeastern U.S. My specific research involved managing the harvests of the plots and analyzing the effects of these treatments on the nitrate nitrogen content of the forage. I conducted laboratory analyses on samples of each treatment and earned the M.S. degree in June of 1967.
However, one U of MD class involved me studying the nutritional quality of forages as consumed by ruminant livestock and this topic gained my interest for future study in a Ph.D. program. It so happened that the Cornell professor who found me the University of Maryland grad student assistantship also knew a University of Minnesota USDA/ARS professor who focused on ruminant nutrition forage research and recommended me to his program. He accepted me and I moved to the U of MN’s St. Paul ag campus in the summer of 1967.
One of the several thesis research choices suggested to me in MN involved investigating the possible negative effects of simple indole alkaloid kind and content in reed canarygrass (Phalaris arundinacea), an aggressive perennial rhizomatous species, the origin of which is debatable – arguably native to Europe, Asia, and North America. It thrives primarily in northern latitudes, especially regions of plentiful soil moisture, and is often considered invasive in growth habits. One of the curiosities of the specie is that it seems to vary in palatability (to ruminant livestock) among and between various general and specificlocations and regions and has been associated with an effect on livestock called “Phalaris staggers.” At the time, there was some evidence that various genotypes contained differing amounts and kinds of simple indole alkaloids that were possibly associated with the palatability and physical effects on grazing livestock.
I chose to focus on the circumstances described above and managed to both identify and verify several of the primary alkaloids that may be found in various genotypes of reed canary grass, through laboratory testing and to demonstrate rather conclusively with sheep grazing trials that such compounds were directly associated with vast differences in palatability of various canarygrass genotypes. This was the most conclusive evidence of these facts to be published in the Agronomy Journal to that point as published in 1971. The report has been cited numerous times in subsequent research papers.
Tell us about your agribusiness career as early as your DEKALB AgResearch days in northern Illinois.
As I was completing graduate school in Minnesota, it appeared that few potential employment opportunities existed in the public sector for PhDs with my credentials. One that did exist was that of succeeding the previously mentioned Cornell professor (upon his retirement) who guided me into the field of agronomy while I was an undergraduate and recommended me for graduate assistantships in MD and MN. I seemed to possess most of the educational criteria that were publicized for the position and applied for it. However, I never received any attention from Cornell, which subsequently hired a computer plant modeler student out of UC Davis.
Aside from the above-described potential university opportunity, I had become infatuated with Ayn Rand’s view of government and capitalism. I interviewed with a DEKALB recruiter who came to St. Paul and was offered the position of “forage program coordinator” at the DeKalb, Illinois main office. The role was to include conducting alfalfa yield and disease reaction projects in the Midwest and East for a California cooperative (CalWest Seeds) that supplied alfalfa varieties for DEKALB to sell. In this role, I was exposed to agricultural plant breeding and its subsequent seed production industries and gained experience in developing educational materials for company sales efforts.
My first visit to Arizona came during employment with DEKALB. The company had recently purchased Arizona Feeds, Inc., located in Tucson. The latter firm developed a business plan that included establishing retail locations around the state and even southern California. I was dispatched to investigate opportunities to develop reliable source of alfalfa hay for these planned locations. I spent several days traveling the state with company reps while noting alfalfa production practices and interviewing growers and others who had some participation in the industry. In fact, this trip was my first introduction to Dr. Bartley Cardon, who later was named dean of the University of Arizona College of Agriculture (with a big boost from Don Butler- then an influential alumnus of the college and a veteran of the livestock industry in the state, who eventually served as Director of the AZ Department of Agriculture) and for whom the main building at Maricopa Ag Center is named.
During my fifth year at DEKALB, a corporate development staffer/friend exposed me to an opportunity to function as a nationwide agronomic research director for a newly-created firm that had acquired a small Iowa business that was producing and selling bacterial fermentation products for both plants and animals – essentially “miracle products” with no credible research data to support claims. This new effort was owned and bankrolled by a Fortune 500 firm. So, I departed DEKALB AgResearch and moved to Memphis, Tennessee. I hired five unemployed former chemical company field reps from around the country who established small research grants with reputable researchers on a variety of crop situations during 1976. The data collected from those trials failed to demonstrate the kinds of (or any) effectiveness on plants as claimed by the original owners in Iowa and counted on by the new corporate owner to boost its stock price. These really were “miracle products” and would have required eventual EPA approval as plant growth regulators or mammalian drugs if they had shown effectiveness. NOTE: It was during this journey that I first met the late Dr. Albert Carleton (then a plant breeder at Montana State University), who was also embarking on a private seed-breeding enterprise in partnership with Bill Corpstein, the then-owner of Valley Seed Co. in Arizona. That effort led to the creation of Western Plant Breeders – eventually purchased by Yuma’s Barkley Seed, Inc. and eventually sold to Monsanto. It was Carleton’s southern California and Arizona crossing program that produced what became known as ‘WestBred 881’ durum wheat in 1976, which became the prototype variety of the modern Desert Durum® industry, with 23,000 acres of the variety reportedly planted in Arizona in 1983. Carleton eventually moved to Arizona to co-found Arizona Plant Breeder, a division of Arizona Grain, Inc. in Casa Grande. Carleton passed away in 2021.
A co-worker in the Memphis operation convinced me to join him in establishing a hydroponic greenhouse business on Wadmalaw Island, SC, a coastal sea island south of Charleston, in early 1977. Hydroponic vegetable production was in its relative infancy at the time. We borrowed funds from a government program and purchased six greenhouses, each containing 3,600 square feet when constructed, from a Florida firm to put up on property purchased from my new partner’s father. We drilled a well and dug septic systems for our trailer residences and erected four of the large houses and a small starter house during 1977-1979 – growing tomato and cucumber crops. However, the amount of labor required to maintain the crops was burdensome (our two spouses had originally agreed to work in the houses – but later declined). Also, the Charleston market could not pay enough to yield a profit on the tomatoes. And the cucumber crops succumbed to a root fungus just as the fruit was ready to pick, on two occasions, after three months of growth. The business closed in mid-1979 and I crewed on a shrimp boat that fall – actually receiving earned income for the first time in over three years.
Simons and the Arizona Grain Research and Promotion Council have been regular sponsors for the Arizona Farm Bureau's Annual Meeting.
So, how’d you end up in Arizona and eventually working with the Arizona Grain Research and Promotion Council?
The DEKALB friend who sold me on the Memphis job was a VicePresident at Heinold Commodities, another DEKALB subsidiary, by 1980. The firm was a member of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. He and some acquaintances at Heinold and in Arizona wanted to open a Heinold office in Tucson. They sponsored me to obtain a commodity trader license and moved me to Tucson in the summer of 1980 to manage a new retail trading office that they developed and sponsored on East Broadway. That office opened in late 1980 and was also occupied by Don Butler, who had gained a commodity trader’s license. Mr. Butler had a long history in Arizona’s livestock industry and was looking to parlay that experience and connection into a career focused on hedging cattle and cattle feed-related futures. However, the cost of operating the office vastly exceeded its revenue and the office was closed in early 1982.
Curiously, a Heinold office in the Phoenix area invited me to join it for the major purpose of raising client business and sent me to Los Angeles to also get a securities trader license. I was not suited for that kind of activity and departed after a year or so.
After that, I found employment at DeVry Institute in Phoenix as a financial assistance application reviewer – for Pell Grants and other sources of federal aid - into late 1984.
I attended the November 1984 meeting of the American Society of Agronomy that was held in Las Vegas. There, I encountered the Executive Vice President of the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association (MCIA), Minnesota’s official seed certifying agency, which was (and is) located on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota – where I had earned my doctorate. He had been an extension agronomist when I was a student. He was now located in a building across a driveway from the laboratory building where I had conducted my doctorate research. He finally offered me the role of Assistant Executive Vice President and I moved to Minnesota in early 1985. My actual functional role at MCIA was extremely limited and unfulfilling.
The position of Executive Vice President (EVP) at Arizona Crop Improvement Association was opened to applicants in the fall of 1987. I applied and was interviewed at Maricopa Agricultural Center and Tucson in mid-November. I was able to display some of my MCIA activities during the interview, which I believe was advantageous. The job offer came at noon on the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend in 1987 and I moved to Tucson at the end of December, assuming the EVP role at ACIA in February 1988.
Seed companies operating in Arizona were deeply engaged at the time in producing two kinds of certified seed: cotton seed of both upland and Pima varieties and hard red spring wheat of the ‘Yecora Rojo’ variety that was largely shipped to Saudi Arabia out of Long Beach, CA. Applications to inspect and finally certify some of the wheat and cotton varieties gradually shrank during the 1990s and in the next century. However, ACIA continued to thrive as the crop kinds began to diversify and continue so in 2023.
Meanwhile, the Arizona Grain Research and Promotion Council had been authorized by the state legislature after a very positive referendum among grain growers. It began its existence in February 1986 with one prominent objective being to join U.S. Wheat Associates, a non-profit organization that promoted (and still does) export of the country’s wheat crop. AGRPC initially engaged Dr. Carleton to act as part-time executive director, a role that he filled until stepping away in 1994. Subsequently, the part-time role was offered to me to perform along with my ACIA responsibilities. The time required for the AGRPC role was/is defined as at least 20 hours per month and that was no issue. Therefore, the ACIA board of directors agreed to permit me to assume the AGRPC role with the modest stipend and expense reimbursements accruing to ACIA. After my retirement from ACIA in 2008, the state contract was eventually converted to a direct one between the Arizona Department of Agriculture and myself. The contract has been renewed for the state’s FY 2024 year and is in its 29th year as of July 1, 2023.
What makes Arizona agriculture so special from your perspective, especially with our grains?
Arizona’s agricultural industry has basically effectively maximized its potential and productivity while facing significant marketing challenges and specific environmental conditions that are not usually experienced in the vast majority of the North American crop-producing industry. Arizona’s crop growers, especially those who grow produce crops, have learned how to manage the numerous potential production issues by employing rather effective crop rotational and irrigation management practices. Our grains, particularly durum, are the
ultimate in milling quality grains. Nevertheless, gradual advancements in durum varieties developed for northern US and Canadian producers have narrowed the gaps in some of the desired drum traits, resulting in more competition from businesses from the major durum buyers.
The superior quality of the Desert Durum® grain that is produced in Arizona has enhanced the state’s reputation in many world markets. Arizona’s growing conditions favor relatively uniform large kernel size that yields generally higher semolina milling percentages than most other North American durum crops. Also, the generally low moisture content of Arizona’s durum grain (6% to 9%) means that buyers are not paying for water – especially when shipping ocean cargo. Also, the ability of specific foreign and domestic buyers to purchase identity-preserved durum grain, by preferred variety, has been a boon to the state’s grain industry.
Finally, Arizona’s major durum grain merchandisers have exerted significant efforts to promote, produce, sell, and deliver Desert Durum® to their customers.
The flexibility of the state’s grain growers to meet differing market conditions is impressive. This includes producing high-quality milling grain as well as roughage to feed the state’s dairy, feedlot, and other livestock industry demands.
When you hear the phrase, “Every day is Earth Day to a farmer/rancher,” what does this mean from your perspective?
While I am not a devotee of many organized environmental causes championed by philosophical mindsets, I believe that farmers and ranchers support and practice activities that help sustain the human population by using the most efficient, advanced, economically realistic, and practical means available. What other “purpose” could justify and maintain the earth’s continuing support of its existence and inhabitants? Bottom line: supportive crop and animal production take precedence over purely “emotional-physical” mindsets that appeal to certain perspectives that would seem to rarely include down-to-earth daily sustenance of all forms of earthly life, without not putting humans at the bottom of the list. However, my perspective does not totally ignore the potential future positives that might evolve from some of those fringe philosophies, which may lead to eventual gradual gains in the existing agricultural practices.
What do you love the most about farming, ranching, and/or the agriculture industry in general?
That these occupations are the most fundamental human activities that permit the vast majority of the human population to devote its efforts and intelligence to creating new enterprises, discovering new facts about various life forms, physical principles, medical knowledge and practices, and dealing with survival issues, thus freeing that majority from the need to devote nearly constant effort to provide basic daily sustenance to survive.
What is one fact or achievement that few people know about you?
I became heavily involved in hydroponic greenhouse vegetable production very early in the industry’s existence (1970s). Fortunately, in retrospect, the circumstances of the project were unfavorable, and the effort was unsuccessful, leading to my permanent relocation to Arizona in 1980.
In your opinion, how will the next generation of agriculturalists need to operate to be successful?
I think that the next generation of agriculturists will need to figure out ways to economically produce its products while dealing with increasing government regulations and “societal” causes/demands and movements over which they will have little influence. These include issues such as opposition to the use of very effective and safe chemical substances to control weeds and diseases, to new methods of developing more productive plant and animal products, “new-to-the-market” plant and animal growth enhancers, and efforts to increase the availability and profitability of food production.
What is the best life advice that you have received and/or can give?
Received and given: Try to identify and focus on the best qualities of those with whom you interact.
What have you loved most about your career in an ag business?
One aspect: Experiencing the surprise and interest of strangers when they hear a bit about the activities to which I have devoted most of my career – especially in Arizona. Also, knowing that most of my activities provided at least modest benefits and value to the people and products that are on the “receiving end” of my efforts.
Otherwise, I hope that my roles in seed certification and grain research and promotion have been at least modestly successful and appreciated. For certain, they opened my eyes to a few worldwide aspects of agriculture, due to attendance and participation at relevant domestic and international meetings. I am so grateful for those experiences.
Finally, I am extremely appreciative of this opportunity to relate aspects of my career in Arizona agriculture and to express my profound gratitude for the many privileges associated with meeting and collaborating with the numerous industry and public entities and individuals with whom I have been associated during the past 40 years in my adopted state of allegiance.