Ray Van Driessche, Michigan Sugar Company’s Director of Government Relations, sugar industry centerpiece, retires
BAY CITY – Sugar Ray.
From the fields where Michigan Sugar Company’s nearly 900 grower-owners annually plant and harvest sugarbeets; to the State Capital in Lansing, Michigan; to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. – when you put the word “sugar” in front of the name “Ray,” everyone knows exactly who you’re talking about.
The one and only Ray Van Driessche.
For decades, Ray has been a leading voice for the sugarbeet industry in Michigan and a centerpiece of the sugar industry in our nation’s capital and on the international stage.
As he retires from Michigan Sugar Company and steps away from his duties on the Board of Directors for the American Sugarbeet Grower’s Association, Ray, 67, leaves behind an immeasurable impact and a legacy that is second to none.
“Ray worked tirelessly on behalf of the cooperative and growers during his career,” said Mark Flegenheimer, President and CEO of Michigan Sugar Company. “He was on a first-name basis with everyone in Lansing and Washington, D.C.; those deeply rooted relationships will be difficult to replace.
“Personally I will miss his unflappable, can-do attitude that he brought to any task he was assigned.”
Added Michigan Sugar Company Board Chairman Richard Gerstenberger: “Ray Van Driessche has always represented the growers of Michigan Sugar Company with the highest level of commitment to the industry and has mentored many ASGA representatives during his distinguished career.
“This has earned him the respect of his peers throughout the industry.”
If you read Ray’s bio on the ASGA website, you’ll learn that he grew up on a family farm in southeast Bay County and farmed full time in a partnership with his brother Gene from 1967 to 2005. He then went to work full time for Michigan Sugar Company as the Director of Community and Government Relations.
He is still involved in the family operation and helps out on the farm during the peak busy seasons. Ray and his wife Geri have two daughters and two sons, both of whom are involved in the family farm operation.
Ray became a member of the Monitor Sugarbeet Growers Association Board of Directors in 1986 and served as President for 10 years. He then served as Executive Director of the Monitor Sugarbeet Growers Association until Michigan Sugar Company and Monitor Sugar Company merged in October 2004.
He has served continuously on the Board of Directors of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association since 1991, including a stint as President from 2000 to 2002.
“I have had the distinct privilege to work with Ray VanDriessche for more than 20 years,” said Luther Markwart, ASGA Executive Director. “Ray stepped up as president of the American Sugarbeet Growers to provide the leadership our organization needed at a critical time in our history. He gained tremendous expertise working on Farm Bills and trade negotiations that gave him a respected voice at the highest level of our industry.”
Markwart said Ray’s wise counsel and calm demeanor were effective assets in some of the most difficult situations facing the sugar industry.
“Ray had the skill and the personal integrity to serve as a most effective spokesperson when dealing with the public and elected members of the legislature at both the state and national level,” he said. “Ray’s tasks were never easy, but his credibility as a real farmer and his gift to communicate the simple truths about our industry and our policy, endeared him to the key decision makers who met with him over the years. Those decisions had a direct impact on every beet farmer in the country.
“To be a great leader you must first be a great servant and Ray served our growers, industry and nation extremely well for so many years.”
Ray’s resume speaks for itself. But those who know him well can easily point out, more specifically, why he’s known throughout the industry as “Sugar Ray:”
• His knowledge of the industry, which is beyond compare, especially when it comes to agriculture and sugar policy.
• His kindness, generosity and unselfish approach to life. Ray is always the first one to step up when help is needed.
• His leadership and ability to work with folks from every walk of life and politicians on both sides of the aisle.
• His dedication to the craft of farming, his career at Michigan Sugar and his extracurricular affairs, which have literally helped shape the sugar industry.
• His passion for teaching and mentoring others, which can be seen each day in the way Ray approaches his job and his life.
As Director of Government Relations for Michigan Sugar Company, there are few people with a stronger connection to local, state and national politicians than Ray Van Driessche and he has worked tirelessly to forge strong and sincere relationships with lawmakers – Republicans and Democrats – whose decisions have far-reaching impact on the sugar industry.
Their respect and admiration for Ray is undeniable. Here’s what U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar, a Republican representing Michigan’s 4th District, had to say about Ray:
“Ray has been a steadfast advocate for Michigan agriculture and the farmers of the Great Lakes Bay Region. He is wellrespected by Republicans and Democrats in Lansing and Washington, and by his colleagues across the country. Ray used his influential voice to advocate for generations of hardworking Michigan farmers and I wish him all the best in retirement.”
And here are the thoughts of U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democrat who represents Michigan’s 5th District:
“When I ran for Congress, Ray was one of the first people to reach out to me to help me better understand the importance of Michigan’s agriculture industry. Since then, Ray has been a mentor and close friend who has done incredible work to support our state. Ray is a role model in his community, church and family. I will greatly miss working with him at Michigan Sugar but know he will continue to look for ways to better our community.”
Farm and family
Ray was born in 1951 to Gus and Leona Van Driessche. Gus was a fieldman for Monitor Sugar Company from 1946 to 1974 and the couple also farmed in Portsmouth Township to help make ends meet.
“Back then, working as a fieldman was a whole different ballgame,” said Ray, noting his father often dealt with labor issues. “He also measured the fields by walking them.”
Ray was the third youngest of nine children. He has two younger sisters, four older brothers and two older sisters.
The farming tradition in the Van Driessche family actually started with Ray’s grandparents, John and Marie Van Driessche, who immigrated to the United States from Belgium and eventually settled in Bay County. Ray’s parents grew dry beans and sugarbeets. Today, the Van Driessches farm land in Portsmouth, Merritt and Buena Vista townships, growing corn, soybeans and about 250 acres of sugarbeets.
Ray did his schooling at St. James Catholic School in Bay City and was a member of the first graduating class at All Saints Central High School in 1969. He attended Delta College for one year after graduation before returning to work full-time on the family farm and enlisting in the Army Reserves. He completed his training in Oklahoma and was part of a unit stationed on Henry Street in Bay City until 1976.
He married his wife Geri in 1974 and they had four children – Julie, Mike, Karen and Dan. Julie has four children, Mike and his wife Heather have four children and Karen and her husband Tony have two children. Mike and Dan rent and oversee about 50 percent of the farming operation.
As he enters retirement, Ray said one of his top priorities is spending more time with his grandchildren.
“I’ll have lots of time now to spend with them,” he said. “I’m also trying to get more involved in the church and help out there.”
As he looks back on his career, a few highlights jump off the page for Ray. It is perhaps appropriate that a new Farm Bill was signed into law at the end of 2018 because as President of the ASGA Board of Directors in the early 2000s, Ray remembers the impact he was able to have in helping shape a Farm Bill then.
“I had the chance to testify in Washington, D.C., in support of the sugar industry. It’s one of those things that really sticks in your head,” he said.
Ray said the 14 years he spent on the American Sugar Alliance’s Mexico Task Force also stands out.
“I made numerous trips to Mexico City and met with sugar industry officials – our counterparts – down there,” said Ray. “Over the years, we would try to give each other a good view of what our industries looked like to try to avoid a train wreck for both our markets. I met a lot of good people on the Mexican side and traveled with some of the top U.S. sugar industry representatives.”
Ray also notes the years he spent as a member of the Michigan Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Executives group and the many opportunities to serve the community that his position at Michigan Sugar Company allowed him, including the Board of Directors for the Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance, the Michigan Food Processors Association and the United Way of Bay County.
“It was a real privilege and honor to be able to do that,” he said.
Though he is confident that he’s stepping away at the right time, Ray knows he’ll miss the work and the people.
“It’s been fun,” he said. “To work for an organization that moved the industry forward – at the end of the day, that feels really good, even when we were dealing with difficult issues.
“It’s really all about the good people you get to meet and work with and become friends with. I appreciate their friendship.”
This article was written by Rob Clark, Director of Communications and Community Relations for Michigan Sugar Company.