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Zach Ducheneaux says input from farmers and ranchers is the key to good farm policy

Farm Service Agency Administrator Zach Ducheneaux spoke on Wednesday, Sept. 14, at the Big Iron Farm Show in West Fargo, North Dakota. He stressed the importance of the agency taking input from stakeholders, going as far as giving out his number multiple times during the conversation.

A man in a cowboy hat sits in a chair with his legs crossed and his hands holding onto his knee. He is speaking to a woman dressed in black seated nearby.
Farm Service Agency Administration Zach Ducheneaux on Wednesday, Sept. 14, talked with Carah Hart of the Red River Farm Show during the Big Iron Farm Show in West Fargo, North Dakota.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek
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WEST FARGO, N.D. — When blizzards hit the northern Plains in April 2022 and producers who lost substantial numbers of calves learned that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Livestock Indemnity Program would pay less than $150 per calf, people started making some noise.

The noise reached Zach Ducheneaux, who leads the USDA's Farm Service Agency, and he was happy to help. The payment was raised retroactively to more adequately account for the investment in that calf, which Ducheneaux said must be "treated like a seed in the ground."

Ducheneaux spoke Wednesday, Sept. 14, at the Big Iron Farm Show in a conversation with Carah Hart of the Red River Farm Network. The transparency of the agency he leads was a big focus, with Ducheneaux quickly and repeatedly giving out the phone number that he answers personally (202-941-4675).

Ducheneaux said his work to remain close to agriculture is both to make sure he's hearing from people impacted by the policies that FSA carries out and to make sure that whoever follows him in the job cannot help but be accessible, too.

The former South Dakota cattle rancher explained how he ended up in the job. He became a "lifelong public servant" upon taking a job at the Intertribal Agriculture Council when he needed off-farm income after buying some heifers and failing to make money on them.

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He served a term on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and held several jobs at the IAC, ultimately serving as its executive director, while continuing to ranch. He thought that was his dream job — until he got an email from the Biden-Harris transition team. He figured it was time to "put up or shut up," while warning the team that his convictions would lead him, regardless of politics.

One of those convictions is that ag lending is broken, making it too hard for young and beginning farmers and ranchers to get started in the industry and leading to undue stress on many producers.

"A producer has never griped or contemplated suicide because a cow won't go through the gate," he said.

Ducheneaux went all-in on working at the agency, evening selling his cattle so that he could have a voice in livestock policy.

Changing with the times

In recent years, FSA county staff have been tasked with implementing numerous ad hoc programs to address adverse impacts from trade, COVID-19 and natural disasters. During COVID, in particular, the agency found ways to serve producers, even with the need to distance from them. They got away from their need for "wet signatures," instead utilizing technology to continue to move programs forward.

"They found a way to get things done," Ducheneaux said, calling their efforts "just the other side of heroic."

In freely giving out his phone number, Ducheneaux said the caveat is that anyone who uses it has to make sure to express his gratitude to their county staff when they visit.

Those lessons will not be lost, he said, and instead will be used moving forward to continue to improve service.

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That has included the way the latest ad hoc program — the Emergency Relief Program — has been handled. In that program, FSA staff used information on file to send out prefilled applications to producers, streamlining the process, Ducheneaux said.

Producers have liked the approach, which relies on mutual trust between FSA and farmers and ranchers, he said.

A man in a blue polo shirt talks to a man in a cowboy hat.
Howard Olson, senior vice president of government and public affairs at AgCountry Farm Credit Services, speaks to Farm Service Agency Administration Zach Ducheneaux on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022, at the Big Iron Farm Show in West Fargo, North Dakota.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek

Howard Olson, senior vice president of government and public affairs at AgCountry Farm Credit Services, asked Ducheneaux what the agency is doing to retain and hire staff at a time when many county offices are understaffed.

Ducheneaux joked that it would help if Farm Credit wouldn't "steal our loan officers," but said the issue is a serious one, with the agency's ability to do its job a matter of national security. There is, he said, only so much room in the budget to raise wages. But he said it's important that the agency doesn't "have to exploit someone's passion for agriculture" to keep them on the job. Later, he said a student loan repayment program was one way they were trying to help staff out.

The ERP soon will enter a second phase, after a three-part first phase wraps up. There is finite money in the programs, so Ducheneaux said producers who have not been contacted in the earlier phases should contact their county offices to see if they qualify due to losses in 2020 and 2021.

Along with utilizing new technologies, Ducheneaux said finding flexibility within existing laws and policies also has helped better serve farmers and ranchers. For instance, he said flexibility within the Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honey Bees, and Farm-raised Fish program helped allow for payments for feed delivery costs during the 2021 drought. But when producers pointed out that moving livestock to the feed is often a better solution, they found flexibility to help with that, too.

And that brought Ducheneaux back to his core message: Farmers and ranchers need to reach out to tell what would help them rather in farm policy.

"Your stories matter," he said.

Jenny Schlecht is the editor of Agweek and Sugarbeet Grower Magazine. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.
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