South Dakota Farmers & Ranchers Take on Secretary of Agriculture’s Challenge During D.C. Fly-In

Posted on: September 13, 2023   |   Category: News Releases

By Lura Roti

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is not afraid to get creative when it comes to securing a future for America’s farm and ranch families.

During his September 11 conversation with family farmers and ranchers during the National Farmers Union D.C. Fly-In, Vilsack asked this question: “How many farms have we lost in the United States from the time I left this job the first time I was Secretary of Agriculture in 2017?”

The answer: 16,700 farms.

He followed up with a second question: “How many acres of farmland were we farming then, that we are not farming today?”

The answer: 6.9 million acres.

And then Vilsack said, “When asked about this the last Secretary of Ag said, “you get big or get out?”

“Are you OK with that? You should not be. Apart from farm families lost, you should also be concerned about small towns. … What is the solution? You need an alternative to “get big or get out.” So, we started thinking outside the box and established climate smart agriculture. We did not wait for congress to appropriate the money.”

With a white board and marker, Vilsack began to outline how today’s Department of Agriculture is working to help farm and ranch families take new and different approaches to earning a profits off their land and livestock. And the funds the department is utilizing do not all come from the Farm Bill. In addition to funds allocated through the Farm Bill, the U.S. Department of Agriculture under Vilsack’s leadership is utilizing funds from the Inflation Reduction Act as well as the Commodity Credit Corporation.

Vilsack’s approach impressed Aberdeen farmer Kirk Schaunaman.

“Many of us are tired of agency leaders doing the status quo,” said Schaunaman who farms with his brother, Craig. “The creative policy and revenue streams Vilsack talked about show that he understands how government works. Family farms can’t survive doing what we have always done. The Secretary knows this.”

Parade rancher, Oren Lesmeister agreed.

“Vilsack has the background knowledge and ability to communicate with people within government to get things done for us,” said Lesmeister, who along with raising cattle also serves as the District 28-A Representative.

Vilsack ended his talk with a challenge. “It’s up to you.”

It is a challenge many family farmers and ranchers have already embraced explained Doug Sombke, fourth-generation Conde farmer and President of South Dakota Farmers Union.

“Figuring out how to get things done in spite of challenges is something all farmers and ranchers are good at,” Sombke said. “Our livelihood depends so much on things out of our control – weather, markets, policy. I’m proud of the South Dakota family farmers and ranchers who took time away from their operations to share their stories with policymakers.”

Finalizing the Farm Bill and ensuring it contains programs that work for family farmers and ranchers is among the topics that were discussed in multiple meetings with policymakers. During the three-day Fly-In, producers sat down with policymakers from across the U.S. to share their story and ask for what they need to see in the upcoming Farm Bill. And one ask from South Dakota producers is for Farm Bill funding to be allocated to further research a non-traditional solution developed by Salem farmer, Craig Blindert, called the Soil Enhancement Tool. 

In addition to raising crops and livestock, Blindert works as an independent crop insurance agent. The Soil Enhancement Tool is an incentive-based, voluntary, crop insurance plan to protect farmers against market lows by encouraging farmers to cut back on production by taking marginal acres out of production when commodity markets drop.

Along with research funding for Soil Enhancement Tool, Farmers Union members asked policymakers to increase oversight to support transparency in the livestock markets and strengthen enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act.

“Policymakers learn more from hearing from the people impacted by their policy. If we are not here to tell them what we need, they are guessing,” explained Gail Temple, who farms with her husband, Brad near Clark. She also serves as District 3 board member.

And with the expiration date for the current Farm Bill looming, passing the 2023 Farm Bill was also top of mind during meetings with policymakers.

“Until the next Farm Bill is passed, this is an uncertain time for family farmers and ranchers,” Sombke said.

Sombke, Temple, Lesmeister and Schaunaman were among nearly 400 farmers and ranchers from across the U.S. to hear Vilsack’s comments during the National Farmers Union D.C. Fly-In.

They were joined by several other South Dakota family farmers and ranchers: Wayne Soren, Lake Preston; Karla Hofhenke, Huron; Hank Wonnenberg, Dallas; Robert Lee, De Smet; Rocky Forman, Cavour, Jeff Kippley, Aberdeen; Rachel Kippley, Aberdeen; Lance Perrion, Ipswich; Sarah Perrion, Ipswich; Scott Kolousek, Wessington Springs; Amber Kolousek, Wessington Springs; Corey Chicoine; Elk Point; Kathleen Chicoine, Elk Point; Craig Blindert, Salem; Matt Cavenee, Miller; Stephanie Cavenee, Miller; Mark Cavenee, Miller; Tonner Bowman, Mitchell; Samantha Olson, Mitchell and David Smith, Pierre.

South Dakota Senators Work to get MCOOL in the Farm Bill

For nearly a decade, South Dakota Farmers Union members have worked tirelessly to get MCOOL (mandatory country of origin labeling) re-established.

There is optimism that MCOOL will be part of the 2023 Farm Bill, said South Dakota Senator Mike Rounds during his Fly-In meeting with South Dakota family farmers and ranchers.

“We have more work to do, but if we could get MCOOL it would solve a lot of problems,” Sen. Rounds said.

Senator John Thune added. “There is opposition, but I think we have a shot in the Ag Committee.”

Amber Kolousek was encouraged by what she heard. Kolousek and her husband, Scott raise cattle and crops near Wessington Springs.

“Not being able to label our beef affects us. Beef is one of a only a few food products not labeled,” Amber said. “Getting MCOOL back is important to having a fair marketplace.”

Scott added, “I want to ensure that we are able to differentiate U.S. beef that I raise from beef imported from Brazil. MCOOL would guarantee this.”

Including MCOOL in the 2023 Farm Bill was among the asks South Dakota Farmers Union members made of policymakers and their staff during their many Fly-In meetings.

“Sharing our story with policymakers is the reason we are here,” Amber said. “We need to see fairness for farmers and ranchers.”

To learn more about how South Dakota Farmers Union supports family farmers and ranchers, visit www.sdfu.org. And to see photos and hear more from Fly-In attendees, follow South Dakota Farmers Union on Facebook and Instagram.