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MERCER: Given the chance to return, ag secretary makes changes

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opinion Mitchell,South Dakota 57301
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MERCER: Given the chance to return, ag secretary makes changes
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

PIERRE -- Unlike many state government departments and agencies, where employees prove themselves through several decades in a series of successively higher assignments, the secretary of agriculture in South Dakota typically came from outside and was a working rancher or farmer.


When he began the job one year ago, state Secretary of Agriculture Lucas Lentsch had an advantage that none of his modern predecessors did.

He came from a different path, and knew what he was getting into.

Lentsch worked in 2009-2010 as executive director for the South Dakota Republican Party when state Sen. Bob Gray of Pierre was chairman.

Next he served in the state Department of Agriculture, as director for agricultural development, during the start of Gov. Dennis Daugaard's new administration. But he left after 18 months to join a Pierre investment firm.

Lentsch had been at Reinke Gray Wealth Management for 16 months when he was invited up to the governor's office. Their conversation last spring led to Daugaard offering him the post of cabinet secretary. He succeeded Walt Bones, who was returning to his farm and cattle at Parker.

Lentsch began April 29, 2013. Unlike many other cabinet members, the secretary of agriculture isn't afforded much office time. There is a heavy travel schedule. Many farm and ranch groups across South Dakota want to hear from him.

For some past secretaries of agriculture, the schedule ground them down, as they did what they could to help keep their home places running.

Larry Gabriel set a standard for expectations and effort. The long-time legislator and life-long rancher from Cottonwood served nearly seven years in the cabinet post starting in May 2000 under then-Gov. Bill Janklow and then-Gov. Mike Rounds.

Gabriel introduced himself to South Dakota audiences as "your secretary of agriculture" -- emphasizing the "your" -- and a few other cabinet members, in the ultimate flattery, took up their variations of the line.

The advantage for Lentsch as a new secretary was the time he had previously worked in the department. Those 18 months provided him an opportunity to gain insights into the organization's structure and people.

Another advantage was the time he served as a captain in Iraq. He said he learned that initial judgments about a person's qualities don't always prove true, and that people sometimes far exceed expectations when challenged.

With a year in the job, Lentsch, 40, is making changes in the department. He hired new talent from outside for a variety of key posts as needed and plans to recruit younger replacements for inspectors approaching or past retirement age.

He recently eliminated a layer in the Agricultural Services Division, laying off two administrators. Employees now share duties so work doesn't stack up. They answer straight to the division's director.

Lentsch spent his childhood in Waterloo, Iowa, where his father worked at the John Deere operations for 20 years. The family moved in 1985 to Marshall County, where Lentsch's parents, John and the late Karen, ran a dairy farm.

Their son keeps a photo of them, in their barn clothes, in his state office. It is a reminder of what he, in his tie, must stand for, too.