Dirty Boots for Washington, D.C.
South Dakota Rancher Zach Ducheneaux Appointed to Lead Farm Service Agency
The United States Department of Agriculture named Zach Ducheneaux the new Administrator of the Farm Service Agency (FSA) in February. The third generation Eagle Butte, South Dakota rancher traces his roots to the Cheyenne River Sioux people, and made history as the first Native American to lead the FSA.
Zach’s father Wayne bought the place from his father, and Zach’s children Kelsey and Ty, along with his siblings and their children, are now working on the land that their ancestors have called home for centuries. Zach’s significant other, Jenn Zeller, known to many as ‘The South Dakota Cowgirl’ also lends a hand on the ranch. The family raises cattle and Quarter Horses, and they have developed a natural horsemanship training method based on the principles of Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman that they call ‘Lifemanship.’
“Dad set us up for a really good situation with the horse program,” Zach said. “He has selected for horses that are so gentle they’re almost born broke. We started a program working with local youth, teaching them horsemanship skills.”
Ducheneaux is no stranger to public service and has spent several decades balancing life on the ranch with leadership positions in the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe (CRST) and the Intertribal Ag Council (IAC).
“My dad served as the CRST chair for two terms and my grandpa served for four terms,” Ducheneaux said. “One of the great honors of my life was serving on the tribal council from 2000-2004. I’ve always had a soft spot for public service because of my father and grandfather’s example. I couldn’t do this without my family’s support.”
The ranch is truly a family operation, with family taking priority over operation. Zach has three brothers who also live full-time on the place, and the family is building a branded beef business with the goal that eventually every calf they raise will leave the ranch in a box headed for someone’s freezer and table.
Ducheneaux worked for IAC since 2010 until he was tapped to head the FSA in February.
“While working with IAC I learned that there is a lot of commonality between all of the tribes, and between tribal farmers and socially disadvantaged farmers,” he said. “Everyone in agriculture is in the same boat, from wheat farmers to cattle ranchers to aquaculture. All of them deal with a high level of stress and most of that is related to economics. I’ve never heard of anyone who committed suicide because a cow wouldn’t go through the chute, but when bankruptcies increase because people can’t make their operation cash flow, there is a huge amount of stress.”
Ducheneaux says that his primary goal as head of the FSA is to restructure farm loan programs to be more producer friendly.
“I want to envision a way to do Ag Finance that helps producers find economic comfort in their operations,” he said. “I don’t know of any farmers or ranchers that haven’t had some off farm income because expenses outpace production. Most farmers/ranchers have off farm employment and are doing their work early in the mornings, late at night and on the weekends.”
“I got my first job with the IAC in the 1990s as a Farm Advocate,” Ducheneaux said. “Buying heifers for $560/head and selling them as bred heifers for $550/head was not a good business model, and I sure needed the extra income. I got to work with producers in difficult situations one on one, sitting at their kitchen tables, as the farm debt crisis of the 1980s was still lingering in Indian country. I learned firsthand that the ag lending system was set up to keep farmers and ranchers captive to lenders.”
Ducheneaux is advocating a system where ag loans are looked at as an investment to grow farms and ranches and local economies, not simply as lending and borrowing. He has been testing out his innovative ideas already with IAC.
“I’m a big fan of the FSA farm loan programs,” he said. “Their interest rate is the only place where a farmer can grow his business. We get them started and then turn them out into the world where they are faced with much stiffer terms in the commercial sector. We need to build a better system for all producers.
“Farm debt has increased four percent on average since 1994. This is not a system that is sustainable. My long term goal is to design a better way, to show that it pays to invest in agriculture.”
The Intertribal Ag Council has piloted a test run of this idea; Akiptan is a Community Development Financial Institution based in Eagle Butte that serves Native American agricultural enterprises all over the United States.
“If we can prove this concept works in Indian country, we can make it work anywhere,” Ducheneaux said. “I think part of the solution needs to be a more patient model of deploying capital. For instance, most cow loans will be a three to five year loan and no cow can pay for herself in that short amount of time, you have to find a way to keep replacements out of her. A ten-year amortization with a seven-year balloon payment and a favorable interest rate sets things up so that you can keep replacements during the extended timeframe.”
Ducheneaux is keenly aware that agriculture has shifted away from local and regional food systems over the past fifty years, and he wants to see that trend reversed.
“In our custom beef business we started out offering both grain and grass finished beef to our customers,” he said. “Now we sell strictly grass finished beef; people were willing to try it and have acquired a taste for it. They figured out that it was a good thing if their burger patties didn’t shrink to nothing because of all the fat in the meat. As farmers and ranchers we need to do a better job of communicating with our consumers, showing them what desirable products we raise.”
As he learns the ropes of his new job, Ducheneaux has been impressed with the folks he works with. He said that he’s proud of how the USDA service centers have handled the difficulties related to the COVID pandemic and continued to provide services to farmers and ranchers across the country.
“Not only have they carried out normal program delivery, they have also gotten out billions of dollars of pandemic aid,” he said. “People regularly ask me when the FSA will be back to 100%, asking about opening our service centers. I remind them that we’ve been operating closer to 200% percent of program delivery, despite our staffing levels, and that they should thank our crew every chance they get. The straight answer is as soon as it is safe for our producers and our staff to resume in person work, we will.”
Ducheneaux has found that his new colleagues in the FSA have a tremendous work ethic and a passion for America’s ag producers.
“The people I get to work with are pretty amazing,” he said. “There are some tremendously dedicated people at headquarters. They show up at the office at five or six a.m. Eastern time, put in twelve hours, then go home and send work related emails. These folks keep hours that would make farmers and ranchers proud.”
It’s a long way from the grassy hills of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation to Washington, D. C., but Ducheneaux is excited about the opportunities ahead.
“The issues we’re working to address resonate with ag producers far beyond Indian country,” he said. “I just found myself in the right place at the right time. This is a surreal opportunity, I pinch myself every day. It’s a little crazy with working from home, I have to be on the computer at four a.m. Mountain time but I’m chomping at the bit to get to work. I couldn’t do this job without my family supporting me. I’m currently at home on a telework schedule due to the COVID pandemic, but when I go to Washington, D.C. I know the ranch will be in good hands.”
Ducheneaux says his priority is helping U.S. farmers and ranchers stay financially strong.
“I’m looking for ways to streamline the ag lending process,” he said. “We need to rebuild local economies and communities so the next generation wants to be there. I can’t tell you enough how lucky I am to have this job and I’m going to work hard every day for American farmers and ranchers.”
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Many students around the state of North Dakota will soon have the chance to try beef produced in their own backyard.