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The Sorghum Industry’s John of all Trades

Photo of the Sorghum Smart Talk Podcast's home page on Apple Podcasts
The Sorghum Smart Talk Podcast currently has 67 episodes over a variety of marketing information regarding the sorghum industry.

John Duff can be described as a man of many hats. He oversees two roles, one with National Sorghum Producers and another with United Sorghum Checkoff Program; he was a key individual during the sorghum industry’s involvement in the China Trade War and is the host of the Sorghum Smart Talk podcast.

“When you get the chance to work on stuff like [the China trade war], you step up and take it because that’s the kind of stuff where careers are made.”

John Duff

From a young age, Duff was involved in the agriculture and the sorghum industry. Born in Levelland, Texas, on a sorghum and cotton operation, Duff said the family farm gave him the best background and start at life. Although Duff said he expressed a desire to continue operations on the family farm, that was not his sole focus.

Photo of John walking down cotton rows on his family farm
John has helped on the family farm his whole life. This year, his parents are preparing to put in their 44th crop.

“I came to Tech back in 2009,” Duff said.  “When I was a junior, I came in knowing that I wanted to be in ag and be in ag politics.”

This desire is what inspired Duff to complete five internship opportunities while working toward his bachelor’s degree in agribusiness at Texas Tech University. Three of his internship experiences were in Washington, D.C., where he worked for two congressional offices and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But, it was during his internship with the National Sorghum Producers in Lubbock when Duff found his calling. Two days after graduating from Texas Tech in 2012, he began working for the United Sorghum Checkoff Program, which is a sister organization to NSP, as the young organization’s first renewable program director.

“I graduated at about 10 o’clock on a Saturday morning and by 10 o’clock on Monday morning I was on an airplane to Kansas City,” Duff said. “I haven’t stopped traveling since.”

After three years in that role, Duff took on a new position as strategic business director for NSP in 2015, while continuing to oversee his job for the Sorghum Checkoff. On April 7, 2020, he was promoted to executive vice president for both NSP and Sorghum Checkoff.

Duff will still oversee responsibilities of his previous positions, staying heavily involved in legislative and regulatory advocacy. His new title brings added management and business responsibilities, primarily for the checkoff program.

Matthew Winterholler, a former National Sorghum Producers intern, had the opportunity to work with Duff for two years.

“He really does enjoy his work, and he takes extreme pride in that. It’s really fun working with him in terms of seeing that passion and being reminded why we were there and who we were serving and the reason behind all of the work,” Winterholler said.

“It’s a privilege to see a farm kid with work ethic that really cares,” Tim Lust, CEO of National Sorghum Producers said. “I think when those things come together, good things happen.”

Duff’s pride and passion was put to the test during the sorghum industry’s involvement in the trade war with China two years ago. In 2018, in response to the steel and aluminum tariffs levied against the Chinese by the U.S. government, China opened two investigations against the U.S. sorghum industry. One investigation alleged U.S. sorghum farmers of being unfairly subsidized. The other case claimed farmers were selling sorghum to China well below the cost of production.

Photo of John Duff meeting with congressional staffers in Washington, D.C.
Duff regularly travels to Washington, D.C. to discuss issues in the sorghum industry with congressional staff. Photo provided by National Sorghum Producers.

In the span of 37 days, NSP collected 4,500 pages of information from sorghum farmers, including farm program payments, every receipt relating to the farming operation, and other supporting information. Duff was primarily responsible for the collection of that information and the creation of a 2,000-page submission that was sent to the Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China, or MOFCOM.

“We had to consider Chinese case law, Chinese trade law, and we had to make sure that the information that we were submitting was going to help famers and didn’t hurt our case,” Duff said. “We were concerned with making sure we defended our farmers, because we maintained and still maintain that our farmers were doing nothing wrong.”

Duff and NSP were told by trade attorneys the whole process would take 18 months. After 104 days, the Chinese government dropped both investigations in response to the Trump administration dropping tariffs on a telecommunications equipment corporation in China.

Duff sees the intense and rapid timeline of the sorghum industry’s involvement in the trade war as a unique and defining moment.

“If anything in my career ever tops this as the highlight, I really look forward to seeing what it is because this was cool,” Duff said. “When you get the chance to work on stuff like [the China trade war], you step up and take it because that’s the kind of stuff where careers are made.”

“He did an excellent job of coordinating with, not just farmers in the country, but forensic accountants and international lawyers,” Lust said. “He really served as quarterback in that role.” 

On top of his two roles with NSP and the Sorghum Checkoff, Duff hosts Sorghum Smart Talk, a marketing-specific podcast produced by National Sorghum Producers.

Winterholler had the opportunity to help Duff produce podcasts during his time as an intern for National Sorghum Producers

“He loved doing the podcast,” Winterholler said. “He was very passionate about it and had some really great discussions with people.”  

John adjusting his podcast recording equipment.
With 67 episodes, the Sorghum Smart Talk Podcast has seen a variety of guests ranging from CEOs of commodity organizations to sorghum farmers.

Duff’s passion and dedication has led to great accomplishments in his career, but he said he credits his success to previous generations of agriculturalists that had the foresight of providing mentorship and leadership to the up-and-coming generations. Duff’s passion and commitment to the sorghum industry is noted by those that work with him.

“It’s just very obvious what John is passionate about and what he enjoys,” Winterholler said. “His whole heart is definitely in fighting for sorghum producers.”

“Luckily for us, he believes strongly in the mission of Sorghum Producers and Sorghum Checkoff and what we do. You see that every day and in his work ethic and his excitement about coming to work and taking on whatever’s next,” Lust said.

Plant Talk

Photo of Vikram Baliga standing in the greenhouse.
Vikram Baliga is the creator of Planthropology.

There are more than 500,000 podcasts active on Apple Podcast. Researchers are using this new trendy type of communication. Vikram Baliga, a plant and soil science doctoral student at Texas Tech University, created his own podcast called “Planthropology.”

“The goal of this podcast is to get better at the public outreach of our science,” Baliga said. 

Baliga is a podcast listener himself and said he always wanted to start one. 

“I was having a conversation with a friend in the greenhouse and was like, ‘This was so nerdy, I think people would enjoy listening,’” Baliga said. 

The idea of a podcast came up again in a later conversation for Baliga. The new Plant and Soil Science department chair, Glen Ritchie, Ph. D., mentioned in his interview for the position that there needs to be a new way to get the scientific research out of the public. 

“He said, ‘podcast’ and it just stuck in my head,” Baliga said. “I feel like I had loose permission, so I did it.” 

With support from the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences at Texas Tech, Baliga started his podcast “Planthropology” in the fall of 2019. 

“I interview researchers, educators, and people involved in natural science,” Baliga said. 

He said that he goes into the interview with a few basic questions but does not want to restrict the guests’ story. He focuses on the people instead of the research. 

Photo of Vikram Baliga recording an episode of his podcast.
Vikram Baliga uses the Adobe platform, Audition, to do minimal edits to his podcast “Planthropology”.

“People are complicated,” Baliga said. “Even if they take the same classes and everything, they all come at a problem from a different angle.”

Baliga said the wide variety of researchers and educators keeps the podcast interesting. 

“No two people have the same story.”

“No two people have the same story,” Baliga said. 

On average, each of Baliga’s podcast episodes gets about 2,500 listens. He said he tries to generally target outdoorsy people with interest in natural resources and sciences, but sometimes reaches others. 

Baliga said his podcast is based on scientific research. 

Photo of red and yellow flowers
These flowers can be found in the annual boxes that are located in the Horticultural Gardens.

“The science information is true and accurate, but sometimes people are not going to agree with it or even understand it,” Baliga said. 

When negative comments surface on his reviews, Baliga said he looks at them as exposure to natural science research.

“I know the material I am putting out there is factual and true information,” Baliga said. “I may change a mind or two, but even if I do not, they still hear the information, which is a teaching moment.” 

These negative comments can be a deterrent for individuals who want to start negative comments. 

“The biggest hurdle is getting used to having your own thoughts out in the world,” Baliga said. 

With 26 years of media experience, however, Baliga said it was easy for him to give his thoughts and to keep the conversations going with his guests. 

Photo of a cactus with headphones
In order to record a podcast a microphone and a pair of headphones are needed to get started.

For others, this may not be the case, but Baliga believes that people who let fear keep them from starting a podcast like “Planthropology” should try it out and do it. 

“It’s fun to do,” Baliga said. “It’s weird, and I am fortunate that I get to do stuff like this in a job like this.”

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