For Robert Riley, innovation is looking at Iowa’s lush summertime landscape as a photosynthesis machine feeding the world. It’s about creating food additives from corn oils and other materials at his flagship company, Feed Energy, while working day and night to improve the environment that corn is grown in.
Riley knows the glacier-stirred soil needs to be protected. The waterways that have been polluted by runoff need to be cleaned.
At the same time, he knows the economic value of agriculture. His company produces liquid feed additives that help the efficient production of turkeys, chickens, hogs and cattle.
He has a strong environmental ethic, but his language is nuanced. Most notably, he is not big on what has become a confusing word used heavily in some environmental circles: “sustainable.”
That word isn’t enough for Riley. He prefers “regenerative,” or leaving things better than we found them, not the same. “I have thrown the word ‘sustainability’ out of my vocabulary when it comes to agriculture, and I’m starting to use the word ‘regenerative,’ ” Riley said. “Let’s add back more than we take out.”
Riley — whose umbrella company, Riley Resource Group, does everything from marketing to technology development — jokes about how he sometimes feels like a lone environmental voice in some agricultural meetings.
But this philosophy major out of Monmouth College in Illinois (and Dowling High School when it was in Des Moines, before it moved to West Des Moines) looks at the world as a place in which all systems need to work, or the whole thing collapses. He doesn’t have a lot of time for those who question the scientific consensus on climate change, or who can’t see the wisdom of looking for ways to reduce runoff pollution from Iowa’s economically important agriculture operations.
“The earth has been around 4 or 5 billion years,” Riley says. “We’ve been farming for 100 years. Who do we think we are?
“We have to honor the natural cycle. We get these huge rain events [which he links to climate change], and different weather patterns and we say, ‘Well? Who cares?’ Well, we have to have some role in that. We are doing a tremendous disservice to our grandchildren. The hubris astounds me.”
Riley is equally at home mulling new ways to squeeze nutrition out of corn oils and fats than he is pushing the idea that the Capital Crossroads visioning process for Central Iowa would collapse like Jenga blocks if the natural, social, environmental, cultural, infrastructure, political and human elements aren’t all in good health.
In a single day, he might think about how to improve livestock feed but also how to resurrect a respectable operation at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University after the grantmaking fueler of ag research had its budget slashed. He might work with innovative students at Simpson College
Riley is a giant in the agriculture world but also has had a huge hand in the operation of the Iowa Environmental Council, Nature Conservancy, Whiterock Conservancy and the state park system, proving that farming and environmental protection can go together.
Riley helped create the Iowa Innovation Corp., which promotes entrepreneurism. He’s on the Simpson College board of trustees. He’s been on the boards of the Iowa Environmental Council, the Nature Conservancy of Iowa, Whiterock Conservancy, the Iowa Department of Economic Development, Des Moines Water Works, Iowa Parks Foundation, and the group that pushed for the constitutionally protected Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. He also founded the Iowa Polarity Thinkers initiative. That one has to do with recognizing natural tensions among views on an issue, and looking to take advantage of the best elements of them while minimizing discord.
Riley spends dozens of hours a week volunteering. “If I’m a lucky guy who somehow fell into this business and have been successful, I think as a CEO I have a responsibility to help be part of the solution,” he said.
“If we aren’t reinvesting in our leadership programs, or in our youth or our schools or education or health — mental health — if we’re not reinvesting in those things, then they are going to begin fraying at the edges and go south. To me, we can’t rely on politicians to do it because they seem to be dysfunctional. We need to rely on responsible members of society to do the right thing.”