Forum: Agriculture must adapt to changing world

Farm Forum

Sam Feyereisen grew up on a farming and ranching operation, and the Mitchell man would love to return to it someday.

Feyereisen, 28, said one thing is keeping him from moving home to the family operation in Gregory and Lyman counties.

“Money,” he said. “The money is the biggest thing to getting started.”

People like Feyereisen will be needed to meet a demand for more ag production, according to a South Dakota Department of Agriculture official who spoke on March 5 at Mitchell Livestock Auction. In less than 40 years, the increasing world population, and evolving food desires, will create a demand for twice as much food as is now produced, said Sarah Caslin, an SDDA livestock development specialist.

Farmers and ranchers will have to do that by 2050 with less land, less water and less energy, Caslin said.

The South Dakota Department of Agriculture and South Dakota State University Extension sponsored the forum to discuss “South Dakota’s vision for livestock production.” Caslin and Jim Krantz, a cow/calf Extension field specialist based at the Mitchell Regional Center, talked with two dozen people about the future of the state’s agriculture industry.

While there are many challenges, opportunities also abound, Caslin said.

She displayed a map based on oil, showing oil-producing nations in proportion to what they produce. Saudi Arabia is, predictably, massive, on this map. A similar map showing agriculture had the United States in a dominant position.

“The United States, we produce more with less,” Caslin said. It will have to continue to do so, she said.

South Dakota produces $3.38 billion in crops and $3.18 billion in livestock sales, producing a total value of more than $6.5 billion in ag production in the state every year, Caslin said. But she encouraged farmers and ranchers to continue to grow, expand and diversify to make their businesses stronger.

There are 40,000 people working in agriculture in South Dakota, Caslin said, with another 123,000 working in jobs directly linked to agriculture.

The state is tops in bison, sixth in sheep and lamb, eighth in cattle, ninth in cheese, 11th in hogs and pigs, and 21st in dairy production.

“So, I think we’ll be able to meet those global challenges,” Caslin said. “We have the access to the land, the water and the resources.”

In addition, South Dakota State University is both educating young people and conducting research to reach those lofty goals, she said.

Krantz said the two primary questions are: Who will produce livestock in the future, and what will happen to the supply? Cattle production has been “the backbone” of the state economy since statehood, he said.

One major concern is the age of producers. The average age of a South Dakota cattle producer is 55.7, Krantz said, and young farmers and ranchers face hurdles, primarily economic, in getting into the industry.

“It’s a tough deal,” he said. “It’s a challenge. There are programs to help that.”

One program is to connect aging farmers and ranchers who are planning for retirement and have no one to turn their operation over to with young producers. The older producer can serve as a mentor, Krantz said, and if things work out, the farm or ranch can continue under new ownership.

The crowd at the March 5 event was of mixed age, but there were more people under 40 than over it. That was encouraging, Fred DeRouchey noted. DeRouchey is a semi-retired hog and cattle producer who does some consulting work.

Another veteran producer, Calvin Heitzman, of Spencer, asked if a young person could get started without significant financial assistance from family, or “rich grandparents,” as he put it.

“There’s a lot of different opportunity out there,” Caslin said. “If you have the passion, because livestock work is hard work.”

She also said “a lot more daughters are coming back” to farms and ranches, which means more women owning and operating ag operations.

Krantz said seeing all the young people at the meeting was inspiring to him. That points to a bright future for the industry.

As farm values have skyrocketed, new problems have developed. Where families once designated one child as the next person to operate a farm and ranch, now, with land that was once worth thousands of dollars now valued in the millions, siblings return home and demand a piece of the pie.

Mediators are now available for family meetings on such issues, Caslin said. But she said it’s a new world.

“Everybody used to call it a lifestyle,” Caslin said. “But it’s a business now.”

Craig Lambert, who works at the sale barn, said there is a “double-edged sword” with the changes to the world of agriculture.

In the last few years, many small dairy and hog producers have gone out of business, one man said. Bringing in larger operations will spark more regulation, Lambert said. In addition, people who live in cities and towns will often oppose any new ag development, as happened in Hanson County last year with a proposed large dairy, he said.

Younger people don’t want to devote the time and would rather ride tractors than get in the pens with livestock, Lambert said. They are used to video games, he said, and like the new ag technology, but are not thrilled with the idea of working with animals.

Some people are “negative toward immigrants,” he said, and that is a problem as even South Dakota becomes more diverse.

People in agriculture need to adapt, it was agreed at the meeting.

“We can be our own worst enemies,” Krantz said. But many people said they also fear increased regulation, and feel the federal government is their enemy, not their friend, although they also said crop insurance is a blessing.

The dairy industry is a focus for Gov. Dennis Daugaard and Secretary of Agriculture Walt Bones. There are about 92,000 dairy cattle in the state, and they want to see that total doubled.

Bel Brands USA, which is based in France, is building a $100 million cheese plant in Brookings that should be open in 2014, Caslin said. It will produce semi-soft snack cheeses.

According to the South Dakota Dairy Producers, the plant needs 30,000 dairy cows to allow it to run at full capacity.

She said Certified South Dakota Beef is also a program that can help boost the state’s beef production and sales. As people in nations such as China demand more beef, it’s a part of the ag market that needs to be developed.

Social media is another new challenge for people in agriculture, as the state Department of Agriculture enters the brave new world of Facebook, Twitter and other areas, Caslin said. While the younger farmers and ranchers took that in stride, some of the older producers chuckled or rolled their eyes at the statement.

The event was one in a series of 23 forums that began in mid-January and are being held across the state. Remaining forums in the region are set for March 19 in Presho, March 20 in Winner and March 21 in Chamberlain.