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

Passion runs deep for 'Next Generation of Agriculture,' despite obstacles

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The next generation of agriculture is not lacking in enthusiasm or passion for the industry, despite some headwinds in the industry. That was obvious from the group of young people South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem invited to join her for a panel discussion on "The Next Generation of Agriculture" at the South Dakota Governor's Ag Summit in Sioux Falls.

Fostering and providing opportunities for young people is part of the governor's agriculture agenda. Yet young people just starting in the business aren't looking just at the challenges of the on-going trade war or low prices; they face challenges with land and capital investment.

John Eilertson suggested to the governor that to help with the transition the state could facilitate a mentoring program to help young people get into farming and also to pass their knowledge down to the next generation. The senior at South Dakota State University is majoring in animal science and is returning to the farm near Wentworth after college to farm part time.

Logan Wolter suggested the state should provide finance or incentive programs for young people that want to farm. Wolter grew up on his family's ranch near Wessington Springs and is now attending Mitchell Technical Institute. He says the Beginning Farmers Loans from the Farm Service Agency are helpful, but a program is needed to link retiring farmers with those interested in breaking into the business.

"It can be as simple as helping encourage farmers or neighbors who are retiring to give a young person a chance at buying their operation," Wolter said.

The high cost of health insurance is also a barrier for young farm families, said Calli Williams, who owns a cattle operation with her husband north of Mitchell. She also serves as a sales producer for Fisher, Rounds and Associates focusing on livestock and farm insurance.

"We would love to be daily hands-on with our operation, but unfortunately we must both have full-time jobs in order to financially support that lifestyle and pay for our loans and health insurance," she said.

Youth programs like 4-H and FFA were instrumental in many of the panelists getting into agriculture and pursuing it as a career. Taylor McMartin is state 4-H treasurer and also participated in FFA at West Central High School. She said those programs have helped fuel her passion for public speaking and agriculture. As a result, she will be attending SDSU to major in agricultural communications.

One of the other challenges and disappointments expressed by the panelists was the attacks on agriculture by the public, especially on social media. They all are concerned about the false information that is being released by those who don't understand agriculture.

"We put our blood, sweat and tears into everything we do," Wolters said.

He said that was never truer than the last two winters as he fought to care for his livestock. Eilertson said the negative public perception of agriculture is a huge disappointment for him.

"Farmers work hard to produce food for people that think we're trying to kill them," he said.

However, the consensus was that they need to educate and tell their story to the public.

Noem said she is committed to helping the next generation stay in South Dakota and on the farm if that is what they desire.

"I want everyone to have the opportunity to live and work in the state because we have a wonderful quality of life here," she said.