The emphasis at this year’s Associated Milk Producers Inc. (AMPI) annual meeting in the Twin Cities last week was to get the young producers more engaged in their cooperative and their communities. As part of that effort the kick-off speaker at the meeting was one of, if not the youngest, state agriculture secretaries in the country. Lucas Lentsch, who at just 40 years old has led the South Dakota Agriculture Department for the past year, began his presentation by looking right at AMPI’s young Cooperators and telling them, “I’m not your father’s Secretary of Agriculture.”
Lentsch told the young cooperators he was working to make a difference for a young and growing agriculture industry in South Dakota and he challenged the young farmers to also meet the challenges of the next generation both on and off the farm and “make a difference in your community.” He said they have to hang on to and expand the “pioneering can do spirit of the Upper Midwest.” While the next generation is now stepping up to take over their family farms and grow their businesses, it’s also just as important that these young farmers “step up in political circles and ag leadership circles because agriculture has never stood still and we need to look for those opportunities to lead not only in our local communities but also in our states because if those involved in agriculture don’t take care of the future of agriculture, it won’t magically happen,” he said.
The title of Lentsch’s presentation to AMPI members was “Dairy in the Midwest: Green and Growing or ripe and rotting?” He left no doubt that he is very bullish on the future of dairy farming in this part of the country. He told the group all you have to do is “follow the feed” and you’ll find dairy is green and growing in the upper Midwest. It makes no sense he said “to set up a dairy industry in areas with no water and no feed.”
Others reasons Lentsch said he is so high on the Midwest dairy industry, which is growing in his state, are predictions made about some of the global challenges agriculture faces in trying to feed a world population that is looking for a more western, higher protein diet. A lot of that increased protein will come from dairy products in countries that now cannot and most likely will not be able to provide their own protein from dairy products anytime soon. Lentsch shared some global challenges in the future. The first is that the world population will continue to grow, especially since the Chinese have pulled back on their one child per family edict. Also, the economies in emerging countries will continue to expand with more disposable income to spend on food. That, he said, will lead to more animal based diets that include more demand for dairy based protein and the U.S. dairy industry is better equipped than any other country to meet those demands. That demand, he said, “means dairy production will grow by 30 billion pounds over the next 10 years with fewer dairy cows.”
One of Lentsch’s primary goals as Agriculture Secretary in South Dakota is to make sure a sizable chunk of the increase in the dairy industry comes to the Midwest and his state. Back in the 60s, he said, there were 260,000 head of dairy cattle in South Dakota but that number has fallen to the current level of about 95,000 head. However, in the last six months, local governments across South Dakota have issued permits to add another 20,750 head of dairy cattle, still paling in comparison to the 1.6 million head of beef cattle across the state. The challenge he said is to provide the infrastructure across the state that is dairy friendly, something he said that is happening. He cited plants like AMPI facilities, Davisco Foods, Valley Queen Cheese, Dean Foods and a new state of the art Bell Brand cheese plant that will open later this year near Brookings as proof that South Dakota is serious about growing its dairy industry. Lentsch also said that support starts at the top. For the past few years, South Dakota has had a booth at World Ag Expo in Tulare, California to encourage dairy farmers to look at South Dakota for their dairy operations. Manning that booth for the past couple of years has been South Dakota Governor, Dennis Daugaard, “and that makes people take note when a governor will take that time to show how important dairy is to our state”, Lentsch added.
Latest statistics show that their efforts are paying off. Milk production in South Dakota topped two billion pounds in 2013 and that put South Dakota on the list last year as one of the 23 top milk producing states in the country, moving Missouri down to the 24th spot. The South Dakota dairy industry is located primarily in the eastern part of the state but as Lentsch said, “it will follow the feed in the future and as they grow more corn in the western part of the state, dairy will follow.” There are no concerns either that dairy production will outgrow their processing capacity anytime soon as Lentsch told us “we could double our dairy production and still not meet the supply needs of the dairy plants currently operating in South Dakota.”