Question-and-answer with Walt Bones, new South Dakota state secretary of agriculture
January 14, 2011
BROOKINGS, SD – Walt Bones, the new secretary of agriculture for South Dakota, answered some questions recently for his hometown newspaper. Here’s a look at Bones responses.
Question: How were you approached about this position?
Answer: I got a call from Commissioner Johnson (Editor’s note: Johnson is soon to be the Governor’s chief of staff) telling me that my name was one of ten names submitted by a search committee and wondering if I was interested.
Q: What was the first thing you thought when you got the call to see if you were interested?
A: My first thought was ‘Wow, what a great opportunity,’ then I was asked to send in my resume and we scheduled a time for a half-hour interview in Pierre. Then I had a bit of a reality check because I didn’t have a resume! I’ve never been through a job interview and I have never applied for a job in my life.
Q: Why did this position appeal to you?
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A: Our family grew up in an environment where public service was held in very high esteem. We all have and continue to serve our communities, state and industry in many ways. So, being involved in agriculture, this is the ultimate way to serve the industry and the state. I was also extremely impressed with Governor-elect Daugaard during my interview with him. He totally understands what agriculture means to this state, he sees the potential and was very open to the suggestions I had. I expect him to be a very proactive, pro-agriculture governor. Add to that a very pro agricultural congressional delegation that includes Sen. Johnson, Sen. Thune, and Rep. Noem, who are 100 percent pro-ag, and you’ll see very few states have that kind of support. On top of that, our new Dean (South Dakota State University’s College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences) Barry Dunn and SDSU President Chicoine, each of them is very pro-agriculture. And even our state legislature, which is made up of predominately urban members, have done the right thing for and has been very supportive of agriculture when given the facts. So, with this kind of support, it gives us a great platform from which we can address the challenges we have not only in our industry but also our state. It led me to ask why wouldn’t a person want to be a part of that?
Q: What are you the most excited about?
A: I know that I somewhat addressed this in the previous question, but I also would add that the opportunity to travel the state advocating for our very creative and innovative farmers and ranchers is exciting. I believe that government should be there to enable and empower, not hinder its citizens and their success. So, I will be looking at the South Dakota Department of Agriculture and making sure that what we offer is relevant, making sure we are not burdening our producers with excessive regulations at the state and federal levels, but at the same time safeguarding the state’s citizens and its natural resources. I’d remind people that we have seven different divisions within the department, and a staff of just over 100 that rises seasonally to more than 140 with fire suppression and the State Fair staff. But we keep a budget of approximately $15 million that amounts to only two-fifths of 1 percent of the South Dakota State 2010 budget. Keep in mind that agriculture generates about 40 percent of South Dakota’s gross state product.
Q: What are you most scared about?
A: I don’t think that scared is the right term. I do have a number of concerns, including 1) oppressive regulations advocated and imposed by emboldened federal bureaucrats and activists, and 2) the changing state and national demographics that show a move from rural to urban, and which lessen agriculture’s voice in Pierre and Washington, D.C. This puts more pressure on our prime farmland for commercial, residential and recreational development. In addition, continued difficulty for beginning farmers and ranchers to get into the business with increasing land values, equipment and input costs, and lastly the shrinking state and federal agriculture department budgets.
Q: Why do you think you are the right person for this job?
A: I’m guessing that my name was put into consideration because of, 1) my willingness to serve, and 2) my active day-to-day experience on our farm. The governor-elect wanted his secretary of agriculture to be an active farmer or rancher. I’d add that my diverse background growing livestock and crops, my commitment to economic development through value-added opportunities, and my involvement in a wide variety of industry groups, not only here in South Dakota but also on a national level, make me a good fit for the post.
Q: How long is your term? Does it last four years?
A: There is no “term” for my position, since I serve at the pleasure of the governor, but I have committed for a minimum of two years and we’ll see where we are at that time.
Q: What is going to be your first priority as secretary of agriculture?
A: I will be heading to Pierre next week to start meeting with the staff, many of whom I have worked with in the past, and to start to get my ‘arms around’ the department, what it does, how it does it and what we have to do to make sure it is responsive to the governor, producers, the legislature and the citizens of South Dakota. It will be a busy time with the session starting on Jan. 10.
Q: What are the top three things you would like to see improved or changed as you fulfill the duties of secretary of agriculture?
A: I have the luxury of following in the footsteps of previous secretaries that left the department in great shape, with great, dedicated public servants, so it is not broken. I won’t come in with an ax to grind and immediately start ‘taking the wheels off the bus.’ We will make sure the limited taxpayer’s dollars are being used in the best way possible so I will be challenging the status quo. So to answer your question, 1) engage the governor in more of agriculture’s issues; 2) I want to make sure that the story of the good things happening in agriculture are communicated to the public; and 3), agriculture is so dynamic and I want to make sure that the department of agriculture stays responsive to the producers and citizens of the state.
Q: What do you think you can bring to this position that no one else can?
A: I know of many farmers and ranchers that are just as qualified as I am and would have done a great job as secretary of agriculture, but their personal situations would not allow them to leave their farm, ranch, or job at this time. This is a full-time position. If I wouldn’t have had the blessings of my wife and my family farming partners, my two brothers, Jim and Steve, my brother-in-law, Lyle Van Hove, and their three sons, who are my nephews, Matt Bones, Dan Bones and Mike Van Hove, along with Monte Plucker, who has been employed with us 20-plus years, there would have been no way that this would have worked for me.
Q: As an alumni of South Dakota Ag and Rural Leadership (SDARL), what did you gain through that training that you think will help you in this position?
A: The South Dakota Department of Agriculture has seven different diverse divisions. So it is much more than policy and promotion, and the curriculum of SDARL allowed me to learn about forestry and other issues that are important to the western areas of our state, along with the working knowledge of many of the other departments in state government. SDARL also reinforced the value of public service and encourages the taking advantage of opportunities.
Q: What can SDARL members do to help you in your new position?
A: SDARL has provided me with an invaluable network of leaders all across South Dakota that I can look to for guidance, inspiration and motivation. All the notes and calls of support that I have received from my fellow SDARL alumni members have humbled me.
Q: Did you ever dream of something like this or does it seem to be a logical step in your path?
A: I don’t think that this is something that I was working toward. My involvement is no different than most of us in agriculture, because SDARL members excel in doing what we need to do to serve our families, our industry and our state. We go to meetings because we enjoy being around other successful operators and we always come home with at least one good idea on how to make our farms and ranches better. We don’t do it to enhance a resumes, but because we are very happy to do what we do best. But when opportunities present themselves, people in agriculture always step up and do what has to be done.
Q: What are the top challenges for agriculture in South Dakota?
A: In no particular order I would say: 1) our producers are being burdened and threatened by emboldened and overzealous activists and federal agencies; 2) we also need to continue to educate our urban friends and neighbors on what we do and why we are doing it that way, to change the images and create our own activism; 3) I’m concerned about the challenges and difficulties our young producers are facing in their quest to get a start in agriculture. Couple that with the changing demographics, in that there is less and less rural representation in government, and we can see individuals and groups placing more and more pressure on our land use. Perhaps most importantly, we have to work together, and I really think we have an opportunity to capitalize on an outstanding support structure, including our new governor and his staff, our congressional delegation, our SDSU leadership, our commodity and industry groups, and even our legislature. When all the different agriculture interests have joined forces, great things have gotten done.
Q: What is your strategy going in since the department has been without a permanent leader for almost a year now?
A: We have great, dedicated public servants on staff and I will need all their help and expertise in getting my arms around this new responsibility. We have a nice blend with our newer and seasoned employees and division directors. We need to make sure that the South Dakota Department of Agriculture is as dynamic as our industry is. I will respect the past accomplishments and procedures but I will also need to challenge the status quo to make sure that our department stays relevant and responsive to both producers and citizens.
Q: Any final thoughts on this new adventure?
A: I am excited about the opportunities here in South Dakota and in agriculture. Challenges such as budgets, weather, prices and others can bring out the best in those of us involved in production agriculture. The department also enforces a number of statutes that give us oversight, regulatory and inspection duties. I will make sure that the department continues to fulfill these obligations that ensure the safety of our citizens and the preservation of our natural resources.
Q: When you’re out of office, what is it that you hope people will have noted about your tenure?
A: I am going to do my best and that is all I can do. I hope to keep my perspective on what is important in life and not get caught up in all the politics and accolades.