Ag producers urged to invest in ag, share their story

Farm Forum

Amid the activity at the Aberdeen Ag Expo last week, South Dakota’s Secretary of Agriculture Lucas Lentsch shared thoughts about the importance of investing in agriculture and understanding the importance of sharing ag’s story.

With continual attacks on the industry, discussions about agriculture need to rise to the surface. “South Dakota’s 146,000 farm families make up about 15 percent of the people involved in production agriculture in our state,” he said. “The future depends on how we tell our story and how we react.”

Getting the farm bill passed was a success story in itself, Lentsch said. At that time, U.S. Secretary of Ag Tom Vilsack was meeting with the secretaries of agriculture from across the country. As Vilsack noticed that the farm bill passed, the news was given a standing ovation as those in the room recognized what it meant to the people in the agriculture industry.

Those who were affected by winter storm Atlas put a real face on the struggles in agriculture. “When photos appeared of the devastation from the storm, people could identify with that,” Lentsch said.

People were impacted by the government’s inaction and that helped get the farm bill passed. Within that law is the livestock indemnity program which will now be permanent and provide for relief for such disasters in the future.

Lentsch said he was advised when he started the job, “Your job is to make sure we don’t have another lost generation.” He went on to explain that there was a time when those who lived on the farm chose to leave, not because they wanted to but because there was no place for them. Lentsch said that the department is doing what they can to keep that from happening. They are putting together a diversified ag portfolio to provide opportunities.

One way to do that is to reach out for opportunities. Lentsch traveled to Tulare, Calif., with Gov. Dennis Daugaard to meet with those in the dairy business at the World Ag Expo.

“We’ve built up our dairy business in the state and have 95,000 cows,” he said. “Soon another 8,000 more will be added. An additional 15,250 dairy cows are permitted. We went to talk with those in the business to encourage dairy producers to check out our state and see what we have to offer. The lack of water in California is disconcerting and our state may offer those producers an alternative location.”

Because of investments, a billion gallons of ethanol is produced in this state. “We have to remember to be committed to the industry and to be committed to doing what we are doing and do it well. If we stop making an investment, those opportunities can disappear. It’s the same with our livestock industry and why we need to build up the dairy industry in the state.”

“People do what they’re good at,” Lentsch said. “We need to continue to invest. We are great at raising cattle; we need to use our talent and treasures.”

Twenty-six counties at the local level government have asked to have their county be included in a study for possible agriculture development. Potential sites are being identified. This will indicate the available resources such electrical power, rural water capacity and access to good county and state roads. This has been done in the dairy business. The information will smooth the process when the right opportunity comes along.

There are 1.6 million cattle in the state. Continued economic development is not gift wrapped and sometimes there are setbacks. Losing 40,000 head of livestock in the Atlas blizzard was a huge loss, but it will not cripple the industry.

The desire and need for protein is important to people, no matter where they are. Lentsch spoke of visiting South Korea on an exchange trip. To get an idea of what prices were for beef, he visited a grocery store and made a stop at the meat counter.

“I took a picture of a rib eye steak and made sure it showed the cost per pound,” he said. “I took it back and converted the numbers. I even took it to our interpreter to make sure I was reading the numbers right. What I found was that the steak was selling for $75 per pound.” In that country, beef is important to them and they are willing to pay the price.

In South Dakota, livestock producers have a perfect opportunity to add value to their product before it leaves the state. The beef plant in Aberdeen is a great example. And Lentsch believes that White Oak, the company that owns the plant, is in a good spot to move forward with value-added beef. They don’t know much about running the plant, but have been asking questions about the South Dakota certified beef program.

“I believe that South Dakota Certified may still have wheels under it because as the global economy continues to bring people out of poverty and they want to increase their diets, where do they go? They go to protein — animal protein,” he said.

It’s a global economy. In Brookings, the French-owned cheese plant will be opening later this year. They want milk. John Morrell is owned by Smithfield whose investors are Chinese. They want pork.

McDonald’s wants to buy sustainable beef but what is the definition? There are many opinions.

“I believe it means that we are using the best practices as far as conservation of resources and being environmentally friendly,” Lentsch said. “We need to make sure that we are not moving backwards in efficiencies of water, air and feedstuffs.”

When looking at beef, Lentsch said it follows the feed and the important resources in the state. “We have feed and technology and more feed,” Lentsch said. “It’s infrastructure that is a challenge. Our roads were built for another era. We need to look at the big vision for where we want to go. We can’t just kick the can down the road. We need to think big, think bold.”