In the early 1970s, Walt Bones returned to his family’s Parker farm. Fresh out of college, the 20-something Bones joined his brothers and ranks of other young South Dakotans to pursue careers in the state’s No. 1 industry.
Today, almost 40 years later, South Dakota’s Secretary of Agriculture sees a challenge in the fact that far fewer of the state’s young people return to their families’ farms and ranches while at the same time he and his peers continue to age. The average age of South Dakota’s agriculture producers is 57.
“The future of our industry depends on new blood,” Bones said. “I think we almost lost a generation of farmers and ranchers during the years when farming and ranching wasn’t as profitable as it is today. Many producers encouraged their kids to get a good education and make careers off the farm.”
For the young South Dakotans who decide to make a career in production agriculture, Bones says opportunities abound – but so do the risks. From securing the land and capital necessary to get a start and managing the financial and regulatory paperwork; to navigating volatile input and commodity markets – even when the weather does cooperate – the business of production agriculture can be overwhelming.
This is where SDSU Extension can help, said Rosie Nold, SDSU Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources Program Director.
“We are here to support South Dakota’s agriculture producers – with a focus on young and beginning producers,” Nold said. “By offering programs like Ag CEO, beefSD and sheepSD, we strive to fulfill the land-grant mission of providing the research and resources necessary to sustain our state’s agriculture industry.”
Through these and other programs, SDSU Extension staff deliver research-based information as well as provide mentoring and networking opportunities to young and beginning farmers and ranchers.
“Rules of the game are much different today than they were for previous generations entering production agriculture,” said Ken Olson, SDSU Extension Beef Specialist. “Understanding the new rules and how to manage volatility and risk is more challenging today. SDSU Extension is instrumental in helping young producers gain a better understanding of the opportunities available to them, as well as the challenges and how to manage the challenges.”
Olson is among a team of SDSU Extension Specialists who organized and lead beefSD. Launched in 2010, beefSD is a three-year program designed for beginning ranchers. It works with beginning-rancher participants from 30 cattle operations who meet several times a year for a variety of educational activities. These activities focus on innovative business and management techniques and introduce beginning cattle producers to veterans of the industry.
“The beefSD program provides an environment where beginning producers feel comfortable asking the hard questions. The established producers involved don’t hide anything,” said Adele Harty, SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialist. “One of the program’s goals is for beginning producers to learn from the mistakes of others – and hopefully save them from repeating them.”
Growing up on neighboring ranches along the Belle Fourche River, Jimmie Kammerer, 32, says she and her husband, Riley, 34, have been working to build up their cattle herd since they married in 2004. The couple and their two young daughters, recently joined Jimmie’s family’s operation.
“For us ranching is a heritage; it’s not just a way of life,” Kammerer said. “My husband and I are both passionate about this tradition and this industry. We want to succeed so that one day our children can continue the family heritage of ranching.”
Kammerer says they have benefited from the interaction with SDSU Extension staff, established cattle producers and other beginning ranchers from across South Dakota.
“We’ve learned so much about the beef industry as a whole – gained the big picture and global perspective of the industry,” Kammerer said. “Getting to visit with people about the way that they ranch and visit their ranch to see firsthand how they make things work is invaluable.”
The Kammerers and other members of the beefSD program recently toured Pat and Mary Lou Guptill’s ranch near Cottonwood. The Guptills are second-generation ranchers who raise a strictly grassfed herd.
Pat says he and his wife volunteered to mentor beefSD participants because they could have used a mentor years ago when they converted their herd’s diet.
“When we started going grass-fed, we felt like we were inventing the wheel – stumbling along and figuring out things for ourselves. We hope that we can help other producers bypass all the mistakes we made along the way to make their operation work,” Guptill said.
Connecting beginning agriculture producers with established producers as well as public and private resources plays a key role in these SDSU Extension programs, says David Ollila, SDSU Extension Sheep Field Specialist and coordinator of the sheepSD program. Organized in much the same way as beefSD, sheepSD was developed for the state’s young and beginning sheep producers.
“Because of SDSU Extension’s extensive network and connections to South Dakota State University research and long-term relationships with public and private resources we can create strong partnerships to help support young and beginning producers,” said Ollila, who often meets with bankers and loan officers to answer questions and provide information about the state’s sheep industry.
During an upcoming sheepSD seminar, South Dakota sheep producers will tour sheep operations and wool facilities in Minnesota.
“The purpose of these programs is to do everything we can to help young people find success and profitability in South Dakota’s agriculture industry,” Ollila said.
Lealand Schoon was looking for a way to reconnect with established sheep producers when he signed up for the sheepSD program. Schoon grew up on a sheep ranch near Lemmon, but his family got out of the sheep business when he was in high school. He has spent the last 21 years working as a grassland manager for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. However, Schoon never lost interest in sheep production. When the opportunity arose for him to get back into sheep production by raising them with a friend’s cattle, he took it.
“As a new producer entering the industry again, I knew the opportunities would present themselves,” Schoon said. “Through sheepSD I’ve been able to network with experienced sheep producers and formulate answers to the tough questions.
“As a new producer entering the industry again, I knew there was a lot for me to learn,” Schoon said. “Through sheepSD I’ve been able to network with experienced sheep producers and ask them the tough questions.”
Networking is a large benefit noted by most program participants, says Heather Gessner, SDSU Extension Livestock Business Management Field Specialist.
“These programs give beginning producers the opportunity to network with others who are going through the same learning curve and growth issues – as well as with experienced producers and agri-business people,” said Gessner, of her experiences organizing and leading the Ag CEO program.
Ag CEO was designed to teach beginning farmers and ranchers about the business side of production agriculture.
“Today’s producers understand the production side of things, however we saw a need for a program that helped farmers and ranchers better understand the business side of production agriculture,” Gessner said. “The business side of farming and ranching has a huge influence on whether a new farmer or rancher will make it or not – especially compared to what dad or grandpa had to do.”
Jerry Zubke, 65, couldn’t agree more.
He grew up on a farm, but spent the first 26 years of his career as a banker. He returned to farming and when it came time to pass his Milbank corn and soybean operation on to his son, Tim, and grandson, Chris, the three men signed up for the Ag CEO program together.
“If you can’t financially survive on the farm, then the farm won’t survive no matter how hard you work,” Zubke said.
For Zubke, it was important that all three men be on the same page when it came to the family farm’s finances, and he says Ag CEO helped the trio do this.
“During the meetings, subjects were brought up by others that impacted our farm family as well. Even though I was in banking for 26 years and knew most of what they talked about, I felt it was a good idea for all three of us to hear and discuss the information together,” Zubke said.
As Zubke’s son and grandson take over management of his farm, he is ensuring that his farm’s legacy is in good hands. A critical move said Bones.
“We are all charged with leaving this industry better than when we entered it. By supporting the next generation of South Dakota’s producers, we are ensuring a strong future for South Dakota’s agriculture industry,” Bones said.
To learn more about SDSU Extension and the many programs which support young and beginning farmers, visit iGrow.org.