From Toy Tractors to the Real Deal: S.D. Secretary of Agriculture Shares His Farm Story & Thoughts on Current Crisis

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By Lura Roti for South Dakota Farmers Union

Like many young farm boys, long before Mike Jaspers was harvesting a crop in the field, he was on his hands and knees, harvesting off the floors in his parents’ home.

“If dad was out harvesting, I was in the basement with my toy combine harvesting,” recalls the fifth-generation Marshall County family farmer, ‘88-89 State FFA President, former legislator and current South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture.

As he reflects on the journey which led him to accept Governor Daugaard’s request to serve as Secretary of Agriculture starting July 5, 2016, Jaspers explains that although his passion for public service was developed in college, his passion for agriculture was nurtured from the start. It started long before he was old enough to drive a tractor.

“I’m a typical kid who grew up on a farm. You live your mom and dad’s business. It’s just part of who we are as South Dakota ag producers. You grow up with it and that passion for agriculture becomes part of who you are,” explains the 1993 South Dakota State University graduate.

Mature enough to remember the ag economy of the late 70s, Jaspers is no stranger to the current challenges facing South Dakota’s family farmers and ranchers.

“I remember the drought of ‘76 and ‘77. It was absolutely dry in ‘77. On my parents’ farm there is a 300-plus acre slough that is now typically 10 to 12 feet deep ­ it was absolutely dry and about the only place we got any hay for our livestock that year.”

As for prices ­ Jaspers says his parents did what they could to bring home enough in off-farm income to sustain the farm. His mom, Sue, worked full-time off the farm. His dad, John, worked additional jobs when he could in livestock and construction.

Looking at the current situation, Jaspers says that although many similarities can be drawn between the farm crisis of the 1980s and today’s climate and commodity markets, there are enough differences to pose the question, “Are we headed back in time? What were the biggest issues in the 80s? High interest rates, land values which went up and crashed, low commodity prices. Today, we are paying a third of the interest rate as in the 80s, but cost of production is three times as high,” says Jaspers, 46.

He adds that cost of living and doing business today is much different than it was when he was growing up on the farm.

“The business of agriculture often requires technology ­ cell phone, internet and technology service agreements ­ all those extra costs of doing business we didn’t have back then.” Jaspers does more than review the current agriculture economy.

He is living it right alongside the more than 47,000 South Dakota farmers and ranchers he serves. Jaspers’ balance sheet is suffering this harvest along with every other farmer unloading at the local elevator or rancher looking to sell weaned calves.

“Today’s reality looks quite different than it did a few years ago. All you need to do is look at the paycheck you get when you drive out of the elevator with an empty grain truck,” he says.

A full-time farmer until accepting the role of Secretary of Agriculture, Jaspers raises corn, soybeans, alfalfa and runs a cow/calf herd on his family’s Marshall County farm and on land he rents from his wife, Robin’s, family near Bridgewater. To cut costs, he shares labor and equipment with neighbors.

In his role as Secretary of Agriculture, Jaspers works with our state’s Congressional delegates to ensure the current situation in farm and ranch country is portrayed correctly in D.C.

“One advantage we have is the fact that all three of our Congressional delegates have a darn good pulse on what is going on here in agriculture. We are truly blessed to have three individuals who understand it and are advocating for us. Sure, there may be some political disagreements across the state, but our delegates understand agriculture and that’s very important.”

Although times are grim, Jaspers says he believes South Dakota agriculture will be stronger in the future because of the current crisis.

“It forces us to look at our operations on a micro-level. To go back field-by-field, farm-by-farm and break it down by the field and the acre and ask ourselves, ‘What am I doing that is making money and what is losing money?’”

Re-evaluating his farm has led him to make some creative changes, as well as engage in tough conversations with landlords. “I have some land where I lose money raising a crop seven out of 10 years. So I did some research and brought a plan to the landowner that would improve the soil over the long run. I’m returning the land to pasture for my cattle. In the end, we both win. The landowner gets a consistent income and I won’t be losing money on inputs.”

Jaspers says South Dakota’s agriculture producers are creative individuals and along with more intense management practices, he expects to see many creative solutions come out of this crisis.

“Despite the challenges, when I talk to producers, whether it’s at Dakotafest or the State Fair, there is still long term optimism out there,” Jaspers said.

Jaspers points to our state’s climate as an example - the fact that year-in and year-out South Dakota’s agriculture producers have figured out how to utilize technology to maximize yields ­ in spite of the weather.

He explains that a possible long-term solution to commodity prices would be to increase in-state livestock finishing operations, as well as grain processing.

“In South Dakota we are such a commodity-rich state. Yet we don’t process much in our state. Yes, there is ethanol and soybean processing, but we still ship too many raw bushels out of our state,” Jaspers says.

Although times are tough, Jaspers is not discouraged. Motivated by his passions for family, farming and South Dakota, he works each day to achieve his broad mission of service. “It is my goal to promote the agriculture industry in South Dakota, advocate for it and protect it.” 

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