Young panel looks at next generation of ag at South Dakota summit

Marcus Traxler
Forum News Service

SIOUX FALLS — Young leaders in South Dakota agriculture made two clear points on July 11.

They’re willing to work hard to be successful, and a helping hand from veteran farmers goes a long way.

That was according to four advocates for the state’s ag industries during a “Next Generation of Agriculture” panel hosted by Gov. Kristi Noem at the Governor’s Agricultural Summit at the Sioux Falls Convention Center.

The panel, which drew about 150 attendees, covered a wide array of issues, including how young farmers use technology in their operations, ideas for maintaining a small-town quality of life and introducing young people into agriculture.

The panel included Calli Williams, a rancher and insurance agent from Mitchell; Logan Wolter, a student at Mitchell Technical Institute who is from Wessington Springs; South Dakota State University senior John Eilertson; and Taylor McMartin, a recent graduate of West Central High School and active state 4-H Ambassador.

Noem said one of the items her administration has discussed is whether the state needs a program to help young farmers transition into farming, or conversely, helps older farmers looking to pass down their operation to someone who will carry on their tradition.

Williams, who works as an insurance agent for Fischer Rounds and Associates in Mitchell and sells farm and livestock insurance, also runs TW Angus, a purebred Angus cow-calf operation, with her husband, Tate, on their farm north of Mitchell. Both of them also have separate full-time jobs, and the Angus business makes them millennial ranchers, because they are starting a ranching business on land they purchased and with their own cattle, which she admits was an “incredible investment.”

In their case, it was a family friend of her husband, Tate, who knew him as “the kid who helped move snow.” The right connection allowed her family to live on the same ground as the cattle they raise and manage, which she believes is important to their operation.

“If we can facilitate those conversations and connections, that’s very important, Noem said of mentorships.

Wolter grew up on a farm 12 miles outside of Wessington Springs and raises cattle. He attends Mitchell Technical Institute and studies ag business while working for Kelsey Ag and Seed in Alpena. He has raised some top-selling bulls for his family, and appreciates the opportunity his family gave him. But he said making fiscally responsible decisions matters too.

“If you show up and prove that you’re willing to work hard and show a passion for what you’re doing and the work ethic, people will see that and they’ll be able to take a chance on you,” he said. “But that’s still tough. There can be plenty of opportunities to do that but you have to find a price range that pencils out. You can rent grass but if it doesn’t pencil out, you’ll lose everything.”

A high standard

Midway through the first year of her first term, Noem said she has a high standard for South Dakota agriculture.

“I expect us to lead the nation,” Noem said. “I expect everything we do to be an example of what we can do in this country.”

From her personal experience, Noem also cited a few instances of how she moved into a bigger role on her family farm after her father died when she was 22, and the roles of non-family members in her farming life in Hamlin County.

She spoke about how she had a neighbor who stopped on her farm every day for a year to see if they needed any equipment or help with labor. When it was time for harvest, she said another neighbor stopped unprovoked and rode in the combine for an hour, and helped her examine her combine’s soybean head to make sure it was working efficiently.

“It meant a lot and we underestimate how much that means to young producers,” Noem said. “There’s so much wisdom that farmers have that isn’t on a website or is something you can Google.”

Eilertson, who is from Wentworth and studies animal science at SDSU, said he was able to build up records through an FSA youth loan, and that led to additional lending for young farmers. But otherwise, he said, it’s hard to earn capital to get in the industry without a mentor or an established farmer willing to work with you.

“I was able to purchase land from my dad,” Eilertson said. “If I didn’t have that opportunity, I’d be like many young agriculturalists would be: in a tough spot.”

Wolter said his father’s death when he was 9 years old had a big impact on him, making the need for a strong, community-based support system apparent. He talked about how he had a neighbor who was a great mechanic, and Wolter’s family traded hay and silage work for mechanic work.

“You can’t even count up the amount of money he saved our operation,” Wolter said. “Being there for one and another, help goes a long ways and you don’t always realize that. None of us are looking for handouts, we’re looking to work and looking to earn our living.”

Noem asked the panelists why some of their peers aren’t interested in farming, whether they don’t have the same work ethic or whether the state needs to do a better job of showing agriculture as an opportunity. Eilertson and Wolter responded that upbringing matters most in instilling that sense of importance.

“It’s all about how you’re raised. I think we all knew the rewards of working hard,” Eilertson said. “There’s plenty of us that do, but there’s not enough of us that work hard. To me, … you need to find the right people that work hard and when you find those people, you need to reward them.”

McMartin will attend SDSU this fall, and has built up an ag background despite not living on a farm, raising sheep on a farm in the country. She said her mom has inspired her to take on any opportunity she comes across, and said her role with 4-H has been important for educating people of all ages.

“It’s an opportunity to show what the biggest impact is on South Dakota,” she said, regarding speaking to elementary students about farming and food.

The panel also agreed that there’s a lot of negativity and false information on social media and regarding agriculture. Wolter said that it’s on all of agriculture to show how farms work and how food is made.

“People have become so far removed from their food that we’re battling a lot of factors,” Eilertson said. “We just have to spread the good word of agriculture.”

(From left to right) Calli Williams, a livestock producer and insurance agent from Mitchell, speaks alongside John Eilertson, Taylor McMartin, Logan Wolter and Gov. Kristi Noem on July 11 during the Next Generation of Agriculture Panel as part of the South Dakota Governor’s Ag Summit at the Sioux Falls Convention Center in Sioux Falls.