Recalling his youth, Wessington seedstock producer, John Christensen says school wasn't really his thing.
His lack of interest didn't go unnoticed.
"My teacher caught me staring out the window one day, I was probably daydreaming about cattle. She moved my desk to face the wall. To this day, I can still see those gray boards of that one-room schoolhouse," says the 64-year-old.
Classroom learning may not have captured John's attention - cattle genetics on the other hand - for more than 50 years, they have driven an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
"Cattle are my life," John explains. "I've been making the mating decisions for this herd since I was 11."
His passion is most obvious when you're among the offspring. Point to any yearling bull or heifer in John's winter feedyard and he recites their genetic strengths and bloodlines.
Calving out 600 cows most years, if John needs a reminder, he simply pulls out a worn calving notebook from his shirt pocket. He's been keeping careful calving records since childhood. "I have only lost one book in all these years. I have 50 years-worth of books saved," he explains.
Although maintaining pen and paper records may be a bit old fashioned, it is not an indicator of John's attitude toward technology and genetic tools.
In the mid-'60s his dad, Jens, was among South Dakota's early adopters of AI (artificial insemination). At 14, John went to AI school.
Efforts by U.S. senators to reform a tax provision passed into law December 2017 may not be in the best interest of farmers or the viability of cooperatives, said Doug Sombke, President of South Dakota Farmers Union.
The provision in question involves Section 199 of the tax code which applies to agricultural products marketed through cooperatives. Section 199 allows cooperatives to keep a tax deduction or pass it through to their farmer members.
Under the new tax code, passed Dec. 2017, farmers can deduct up to 20 percent of their total sales to a cooperative to offset the loss of the previous Section 199. Private businesses get a tax benefit from a lower tax rate and a lower corporate tax.
Before taking a position, Sombke took the time to visit with leadership from a traditional South Dakota cooperative (one where all patrons who do business with the cooperative receive patronage) and a closed cooperative (where patrons have to meet specific qualifications in order to receive dividends).
"My understanding is, this newly passed cooperative tax reform measure is unclear how it will affect our cooperative and their members," Sombke explains. "The only way we will support further action on Section 199 is to see it revised to the way it was prior to December 2017 or left alone. Anything else puts our farmers and cooperatives' tax position in jeopardy."
Sombke said he is aware that Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) and Sen. John Thune (R-SD) are working on a solution, collaboratively.
Calling it a "swing and a miss," the South Dakota Farmers Union (SDFU) criticized a recent report by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in an editorial published this week in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader for failing to highlight the critical role of agricultural derived ethanol.
According to SDFU President Doug Sombke, the report references renewables but does so in the most general way imaginable, and lumps the need to produce renewables in rural America with coal, natural gas, oil, and nuclear power. The word ethanol is not mentioned despite the fact that it is a multi billion dollar domestic industry and in South Dakota alone it contributes nearly four billion dollars to the state's economy
"Agriculturally derived biofuels, primarily ethanol, have single-handedly reversed a decades long trend of rising oil imports and a staggering flow of American dollars to foreign countries that support drugs, terrorism, and other activities. While we are struggling to see commodity prices above the cost of production, I shudder to think of where we would be without the 15 billion gallon ethanol market," said Sombke .
Sombke noted that the report failed to not only pinpoint the contributions to date but the untapped potential of the future. "Ironically, the report keys on the need for regulatory reform in order to "unleash the potential" of rural America when there is no industry held back more from expansion than ethanol. We need USDA to lead the charge to break down the barriers at EPA and let us grow this market," he said.
"We can thrive in a free market if given access and we can play a key role in protecting public health through higher blends like E20, E25, and even E30."
A group of devoted Farmer's Union campers were recognized for their commitment to community involvement and leadership development with the Torchbearer Award during an awards luncheon hosted at the 2017 S.D. Farmers Union State Convention held in Huron, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, 2017.
For campers, receiving the Torchbearer Award symbolizes the highest level of achievement for the South Dakota Farmers Union Education Program. This award is given once the camper has reached five years of committed service, showcasing the time and dedication campers have committed over the past years to the education department, as well as the rural communities they have served.
Continuing the tradition of S.D. Farmers Union Camp is often times a priority for youth who are eligible for the Torchbearer Award.
"Torchbearers have taken the time and effort to follow the path many have set before them," said Rachel Haigh-Blume, S.D. Farmers Union Education Director. "For years Farmers Union has been committed to educating youth on legislation, cooperation and leadership. Many of the Senior Youth have had family members go through the program and the goal is that they continue on, that this ceremony is the foundation to build and challenge themselves to meet the next steps in Farmers Union such as Young Producers group, becoming a County or District leader, and many other opportunities.."
The 2017 Torchbearers include: Jim Brockel, Shadehill, son of Kelvin and Jean Brockel; Skylar Cox, Fredrick, daughter of Jeff Cox; Dalton Gerlach, Stickney, son of LaRon and Roxann Gerlach; Jennifer Hanson, Britton, daughter of Lorrie Hanson; Marissa Holinka, Watertown, daughter of Rick and Gwen Holinka; Brenna Johnson, Groton, daughter of Chad and Michelle Johnson; Haley Keizer, Plankinton, daughter of Lance Keizer and Miranda Keizer; Taylin Montague, New Underwood, daughter of Brad and Lawonza Montague; Joseph Nugteren, Canistota, son of Darin and Lisa Nugteren; Jackie Nuss, Tripp, son of Jarrod and Ronda Nuss; Karly Schaunaman, Aberdeen, daughter of Kirk and Kim Schaunaman; Samuel Schumacher, Mt. Vernon, son of Greg and Sherry Schumacher; Hannah Sumption, Fredrick, daughter of Eric and Stacey Sumption; Rowdy Thompson, New Underwood, son of Dana and Roxona Thompson; and Gabriella Weidenbach, Canistota, daughter of Joel and Becky Weidenbach.
A group of devoted Farmer's Union campers were recognized for their commitment to community involvement and leadership development with the Torchbearer Award during an awards luncheon hosted at the 2017 S.D. Farmers Union State Convention held in Huron, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, 2017.
Left to Right: Back Row: Skylar Cox, Frederick; Dalton Gerlach, Stickney; Brenna Johnson, Groton; Jim Brockel, Shadehill; Karly Schaunaman, Aberdeen;Jennifer Hanson, Britton. Front Row: Rachel Haigh-Blume, Samuel Schumacher, Mt. Vernon; Joseph Nugteren, Canistota; Marissa Holinka, Watertown; Hannah Sumption, Frederick; Haley Keizer, Plankinton; and Gabriella Weidenbach, Canistota. Not pictured: Jackie Nuss, Tripp; Taylin Montague, New Underwood; Rowdy Thompson, New Underwood.
During the 2017 S.D. Farmers Union State Convention, members were given the opportunity to campaign and be elected to represent South Dakota as a delegate to the 2018 National Farmers Union Convention held in Kansas City, Missouri, March 4-6, 2018.
Delegates adopt policy and special orders of business that will guide Farmers Union government affairs priorities over the course of the next year.
This year's delegates will be Tammy Basel, Meade County; Bill Chase, Beadle County; Lorrie Hanson, Marshall County; Jeff Kippley, Brown County; Becky Martinmaas, Faulk County and Hank Wonnenberg, Gregory County.
Seed cleaning has been a part of the Bisgard family farm operation since Herbert Bisgard constructed a cribbed elevator in the middle of the farmyard more than 60 years ago.
"We cleaned everything. Anything that was brought to us - flax, millet, oats, rye - in those days it was mostly small grains," recalls his son, Peter Bisgard, 63, a third-generation Day County farmer who raises wheat, corn, soybeans and some registered seed with his sons and wife, Leah. The Bisgards also have a daughter, Stacy Anderson.
Remember, this was before the days of traited seed when most farmers harvested their own seed to plant the following year.
Today, Peter and his sons, Bob, 37, and Randy, 32, continue to clean seed for neighbors to supplement the farm's income. But, like most things on their family's farm, the seed cleaning business looks different than it did when Peter was a kid.
"Of course things have changed. Back then, most grain was brought in on 4-wheel trailers or pickup trucks. Today we only see semis," Peter explains.
Technology and the weather have impacted the overall farming operation as well. In the 1990s, water began to take over farmground.
"We have a picture of Randy on a tractor and drill in a field where people now fish," Peter says of Bitter Lake, a non-meandered body of water, which was farm and pastureland in the 1970s but today has recorded depths of 18-feet.
Today, South Dakota Farmer Union President Doug Sombke called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to stop hiding the true source and quantities of some of most harmful emissions of gasoline by updating their models and enforcing the law.
In a letter to Christopher Grundler, Director of EPAs Office of Transportation and Air Quality, Sombke blasted the agency for its unwillingness to take the lead in reducing secondary organic aerosols that comprise the majority of urban particulates (PM2.5) and are, by EPAs own admission, directly linked to gasoline.
His letter was prompted by a report in the Wall Street Journal that leaf blowers emit as much as cars in terms of PM 2.5 with the supporting data in the story derived from an EPA chart titled Blowing Smoke.
"To suggest that leaf blowers are on par with 270 million cars is absurd," said Sombke. "And that absurdity is drawn from outdated information and bad science."
"Whether this is an error of omission or just a refusal to take action, EPA data ignores the fact that counting primary sources that lead to particulate formation is at best half the story," he added, "It is the secondary aerosols from gasoline and the benzene based hydrocarbons that are used for octane which is the real problem."
The letter called on Mr. Grundler to "come clean" and not mislead the public, media and policy makers by incorrectly claiming diesel fuel and vehicles are the problem rather than gasoline and its carcinogenic components.
"Mr. Grundler, I think that you and your colleagues are the ones blowing smoke...do your duty to protect the health and welfare of the American people, especially the most vulnerable among us - our children," Sombke said.
When times are tough, family farmers and ranchers have a choice, Taylor Sumption explains. "With everyone struggling in agriculture right now, we can complain or change things."
Creating positive change together motivated South Dakota Farmers Union members from across the state to take time away from their farms, ranches and other professions to gather in Huron Nov. 30-Dec. 1 for the organization's 2017 State Convention.
"It's important that we work together to promote what we do," adds Sumption, who farms with his dad and brothers near Frederick.
Promoting their family's business is the reason Dick Kolousek and his son, Scott and daughter-in-law, Amber, became actively involved in Farmers Union a few years ago.
SDFU President Doug Sombke today urged Senator Mike Rounds, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, to ensure that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt enforces a law that has been on the books for more than 25 years, but ignored by his Agency. Sombke was prompted to write by EPW Chairman John Barrosso's recent letterto Pruitt criticizing EPA's failure to comply with certain study requirements under the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS).
Barrosso reminded Pruitt that "EPA cannot ignore the will of Congress and the requirements of the Clean Air Act for 17 years."
Sombke told Rounds that "EPA's dereliction of duty goes well beyond its failures with the RFS. It is well past time for EPA to enforce the mandatory requirements of Section 202(l) of the Clean Air Act, the so-called "clean octane" provision."
Millions of urban Americans, especially children, would benefit the most from proper enforcement of the "clean octane" provision, which Congress enacted in the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments while it was banning leaded gasoline. To prevent a repeat of the horrific lead health effects, Congress required EPA to limit "to the greatest achievable extent" the use of benzene-based additives (known as BTEX) which refiners use to increase gasoline octane ratings. Typical gasoline contains at least 25% BTEX, and tens of billions of gallons are combusted every year. Last week, the respected Center for Environmental Health released a report on the devastating effects BTEX emissions products can have on the fetus and infants. https://endocrinedisruption.org/audio-and-video/oil-and-gas/uoged-webb
Recently, EPA scientists belatedly admitted what experts have been saying for many years: gasoline exhaust is the predominant source of the most dangerous urban pollutants, including ultrafine particulates that carry carcinogens through the blood stream to the brain and other organs. Some of the most potent of these are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which the Surgeon General identified years ago as the most deadly agents in tobacco smoke. Gasoline PAHs are even more pervasive and lethal than tobacco PAHs, and there is no way for urban residents to escape them because they travel long distances, and penetrate into homes, schools, and cars.
Automakers have told EPA that they require higher octane gasoline to power more efficient, higher compression engines. US Department of Energy labs have singled out ethanol's superior octane properties as the preferred way to produce higher octane gasoline. Ethanol's superior octane rating comes at a lower cost than oil-derived BTEX compounds, so consumers and the economy are also big winners.
On October 19, 1017, Pruitt told Rounds and other Senators that his "responsibility as Administrator of the EPA is to faithfully administer the laws passed by the U.S. Congress". Sombke strongly urged Senator Rounds to ensure that EPA ends its 25 years of obstruction, and fulfills its sworn duty to protect the public health and welfare
Cheryl Schaefers, a Polo crop and livestock farmer and owner of Cheryl's Catering, was elected to serve as the South Dakota delegate to the National Farmers Union 2018 Women's Conference held in San Diego, California January 14-18, 2018.
Women in Leadership is the theme of this year's convention. Women have been leading in agriculture for many years, and NFU hopes to build on this idea throughout the conference.
The conference will prepare attendees and their operations for their own future in many areas, including business planning, succession planning, running for local office, networking, telling their own stories, innovative marketing, and much more.
NFU hopes to provide attendees with both a network of female producers that they can reach out to throughout the year as well as important tools that will help set their operations up for a future of success.
Cheryl Schaefers, a Polo crop and livestock farmer, and owner of Cheryl's Catering, was elected to serve as the South Dakota delegate to the National Farmers Union 2018 Women's Conference held in San Diego, California January 14-18, 2018.
Doug Sombke was reelected to serve as President of South Dakota Farmers Union during the organization's 102nd State Convention held in Huron Nov. 30-Dec.1, 2017.
"I love this organization because it gives a voice to family farmers and ranchers," said Sombke who has served as President of the organization since 2005. "I am a farmer. Farming is all I ever wanted to do - it's my passion. I have made it my lifelong goal to work to advance the future of family farmers and ranchers any way I can. I gave up my daily involvement in my family's farm to serve this organization because I want to ensure the next generation of farm and ranch kids have the opportunity to farm and ranch."
Sombke has served as President of South Dakota Farmers Union since 2005. He is a fourth-generation crop and livestock farmer who continues to remain involved in his family's Conde farm - although since he began serving as SDFU President, his three sons have taken over managing the day-to-day farm operations. His sons also operate value-added enterprises from the farm. He and his wife, Mel, have three grandchildren.
In his role as President of S.D. Farmers Union, Sombke has served on the board of directors for Farmers Union Industries, an organization which is made up of several businesses - the dividends of which go to help fund Farmers Union organizations in South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and Wisconsin as well as Farmers Union Enterprise programs and National Farmers Union. In 2017, Doug was named President of this organization.
As President of South Dakota Farmers Union, Sombke leads the state-wide organization which works to enhance South Dakota's number one industry of agriculture by developing policy to support the family farmers and ranchers who actively grow crops and raise livestock, their rural communities and protect future generations of farmers and ranchers.
"As a father to three young farmers in their 20s, I have skin in game. Every day, our livelihoods are at risk from regulations, policies or markets," Sombke said. "As the leader of this organization, I will continue to fight each day to ensure that those in control hear the voice of South Dakota's family farmers and ranchers. I am not afraid to be the mouthpiece of our family farmer and rancher members - even when what we have to say is not popular."
Wayne Soren was reelected to serve as Vice President of South Dakota Farmers Union during the organization's 102nd State Convention held in Huron Nov. 30-Dec.1, 2017. Soren has served in this position since 2010.
"Throughout the years I have been actively involved in Farmers Union, I am constantly impressed with the grassroots' changes we are able to make in our state to improve the lives and livelihoods of South Dakota's family farmers and ranchers," said Soren, a third-generation farmer who raises corn, soybeans, wheat and operates a cow/calf herd near Lake Preston. "I have seen the power, sharing our story, has on impacting positive change for family farmers and ranchers."
Soren became involved in Farmers Union nearly three decades ago when former SDFU President, Dallas Tonsager invited him to a meeting where the National Farmers Union president spoke. A few months later, Tonsager invited Soren to another meeting where he got to hear another National Farmers Union President speak.
Impressed by the leadership of Farmers Union, Soren decided this was an organization he needed to join.
Jumping in with both feet, Soren began carving out time in his busy farm and fathering schedule for County meetings, Pierre Legislative Days and D.C. Fly-Ins (Soren's wife, Vicki, works fulltime off the farm, so when their boys, Jason and Ryan were growing up, the boys spent time with Soren helping him on the farm in lieu of daycare).
It wasn't long before his active membership became active leadership. First as a County Counselor officer, then as District 3 President and in 2010, Soren was elected to serve as the South Dakota Farmers Union Vice President.
"In my leadership role, I have shared this message with our members because waiting for positive change can get frustrating. However, we must never give up. I also believe that positive change requires some give and take. To be an effective leader I believe it is important to figure out how to strike a balance with political leaders to reach a positive outcome," Soren said.
South Dakota Farmers Union 2017 State Convention brought many family farmers and ranchers to Huron today to develop policy, discuss rural healthcare and many other issues impacting those who help feed and fuel our state, nation and world.
"This is a grassroots organization who has been serving South Dakota's family farmers, ranchers and their communities for more than a century. Perhaps policy development is the most important item accomplished here," says Doug Sombke, S.D. Farmers Union President.
Sombke adds that the annual state convention provides a great opportunity to bring in experts to discuss topics impacting South Dakota's farmers, ranchers and rural communities.
Since their son, Tate was born four years ago, finding quality, stable childcare has been an on-going challenge for Loni and Travis Brown.
When Tate was a newborn, Loni, who had been working as a Building Specialist at Cammack Ranch Supply in Union Center, quit her job and began working in the infant room at a Sturgis daycare center so she could remain his primary caregiver.
Soon however, Loni knew she needed to find a job that provided the family with healthcare benefits. The daycare didn't offer benefits and benefits through Travis' employer, at that time, were too expensive.
When she began working for Black Hills Credit Union, Loni found an in-home daycare for Tate. "In-home care just seemed like an overall better environment for him. It was more personal and hands-on. It was also a more calm environment because there were only 10 kids versus the center's 70," she explains.
Like many farmers, a typical harvest day for John Voss consists of long hours spent in the combine focusing on one goal - getting his crops out before the weather turns and makes it impossible.
"Harvest days are hectic," says the third generation Andover farmer. "We don't have much spare time during harvest because we are working with small windows in the weather. I spend most of my days out in the combine, from early morning to late in the evening."
Farmers Union member and South Dakota State University student Jaclynn Knutson, Centerville, was one of three college students to receive the National Farmers Union Foundation Stanley Moore Scholarship award.
"I congratulate our three scholarship recipients for their dedication to their education, and thank them for their commitment to the Farmers Union organization," says National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson. "We had an exceptional pool of candidates apply for the scholarship programs this year, and I am proud to see the enthusiasm for Farmers Union from the next generation of leaders in American agriculture."
Members are encouraged to attend the 2017 S.D. Farmers Union State Convention held in Huron at the Crossroads Hotel Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.
Experts will be discussing E30 and rural healthcare during the two-day convention where SDFU members will vote on policy that will be the focus of the 2018 legislative session in Pierre.
"When it comes to policy that impacts family farmers and ranchers, there are many changes coming down the pike - in our state and nation. It's our hope that when members leave this convention they have a better understanding of the issues and what we can do to advocate for policy we need," says Doug Sombke, SDFU President.
Along with policy development, industry experts will discuss pressing issues of healthcare, crop insurance and the future of E30.
Alana Knudson, Public Health Program Area Director at the University of Chicago NORC, will update members on healthcare and its impact on farming and ranching families
Pulling back a thick layer of crop residue with his bare hands, Mike Beer digs into the earth and holds up a black clump of soil alive with earthworms.
"This is heavy clay and when I first started farming, it was hard as a rock. Now, look at it - it's like a vegetable garden," says the Keldron rancher. "I'm a soil person. Even as a kid I was always playing in the dirt, digging holes. I was curious."
He goes on to explain that even as a young teen, he would go out onto the range and dig deep holes.
"Everyone has something and for me, it is soil," Mike explains. "I remember seeing the different horizons and understanding that they were different soil types - long before I ever read that in a textbook."
What began as a childhood hobby became a useful talent in college when he judged on South Dakota State University's nationally ranked soil judging team.
His interest in enhancing soil health led him to work in the university's soil lab and complete a 1991 senior research project on no-till farming practices - at the time, a foreign concept in northwest South Dakota.
Today, the soil management practices Mike has implemented for nearly three decades are key to his family's livelihood on their farm and ranch where Mike and his wife, Danni, raise cattle and a wide range of crops including registered spring wheat, winter wheat, corn, sunflowers, millet, soybeans, chickpeas, hay and cover crops.
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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today announced it would be terminating the Farmer Fair Practices Rule on Competitive Injury, a rule that would have provided the most basic of protections to American family farmers and ranchers as they endure increasingly concentrated markets and unfair treatment from multinational meatpackers.
South Dakota Farmers Union (SDFU) President Doug Sombke issued the following statement in response to the announcement:
"SDFU is deeply disappointed in today's decision by the USDA and realizes the negative impact it will have on rural Americans. Withdrawing the rule shows little respect for family farmers and ranchers and a big win for multinational packers. This President and Administration has yet again let down the rural Americans who gave their support to get him into office to begin with. Leaving them to wonder when rural Americans will see a return on support from their own president."
"Clarifications in the Packers and Stockyards Act is a high priority for SDFU. Our efforts in addressing this impactful issue for our industry will not waiver. SDFU will encourage Congress and the Administration to clarify the loopholes left as a result of the withdrawal."
Until recently, when Shelly and George Kenzy paid their monthly bills, they wrote a check for $2,600 to their health insurance provider. A large expense for the farm family of five who raise cattle and forage crops near Gregory.
"Health insurance is a big deal for our family because our daughter, Brooklynn, has had Type 1 diabetes since she was 10-months-old," explains Shelly, noting that without insurance, the insulin which literally keeps the otherwise healthy and athletic 13-year-old alive, would cost $600 out-of-pocket each month - not to mention the two monitors she wears at all times costing about $11,500 and then there are testing supplies and three yearly visits to the endocrinologist.
The out-of-pocket insurance expense dropped to just a little over $400 a month when the family signed up for group insurance thanks to Shelly's position at the local public school.
"This insurance is a huge deal. It means we know we can keep Brooklynn using the latest technology and don't have to worry about using older ways to treat diabetes," Shelly explains. "This gives her a healthier future because her numbers are steady. We don't have to worry as much about future health problems."