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New ag foundation promotes growth of SD's largest industry

For a rancher who raises buffalo out west, a farmer who grows corn in Mitchell or a producer of wheat up north, a new foundation is determined to invest into the future of agriculture.

For a rancher who raises buffalo out west, a farmer who grows corn in Mitchell or a producer of wheat up north, a new foundation is determined to invest into the future of agriculture.

On Tuesday, National Agriculture Day, the South Dakota Community Foundation announced the creation of the South Dakota Agricultural Foundation, which has already received $1.5 million in committed donations over the next five years.

Greg Von Wald, former president at Mitchell Technical Institute and one of nine members of the foundation's advisory board, expects the organization will have a significant impact on South Dakota's top industry.

"For South Dakota, what our foundation wants to do is ensure that agriculture stays on the front end and continues to be economically profitable," Von Wald said Tuesday.

The foundation has already established four major purposes and two fundraising goals. The four purposes of the foundation include workforce development, support for stewardship of working land and natural resources, promotion of agriculture in the state and to continue development, agricultural research and diversification of crops.

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Von Wald said the project is the brainchild of South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture Lucas Lentsch, who vacates his post in favor of the private sector at the end of the month. Von Wald, who Lentsch asked to join the advisory council, commended him for kick-starting the foundation.

"He's a young, aggressive, smart-thinker and this is really his initiative," Von Wald said. "You really have to give him credit for thinking out of the box."

The non-governmental foundation has yet to appropriate any of its funds to agriculture-related projects throughout the state, but Von Wald had some ideas about where the newly instituted foundation could direct some of its funding.

While none of these have been set in stone, Von Wald said the types of ag-related programs which could receive funding include support of revolutionary developments in the industry like the precision agriculture program at MTI or support of agricultural research being studied at South Dakota State University.

The foundation could also support ways to introduce producers who may be unfamiliar with precision agriculture techniques into modern farming methods through app development or training courses as well as scholarships for areas of the industry in need of a more robust workforce.

Von Wald's suggestions are mere possibilities on the first day of the foundation's formal existence, but he said simply having a foundation to support the industry that generates about $26 billion worth of product in the state annually is key to agriculture's continued success.

"Wouldn't you know it, there are foundations around every corner, but there's none for our largest economic sector," Von Wald said about the thought process behind the creation of the foundation.

So far, the foundation raised $1.5 million with the help of partners like First Dakota National Bank, Farm Credit Services of American, Dacotah Bank, Valley Queen Cheese Factory, Legend Seeds and other individual donors.

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The foundation's goal is to raise an additional $20 million within the next five years and reach $100 million by 2031, which Von Wald said could be done with the contributions of those who participate in the agriculture industry.

In a news release issued Tuesday, a representative of one of the initial donors spoke out in support of the foundation.

"We are very excited to be a part of a coalition of private sector stakeholders that is leading a new effort to encourage investment in the future of agriculture in our state," said Nate Franzen, president of the Agri-Business Division of First Dakota National Bank. "Ag producers, business leaders and industry stakeholders have come together to create a relevant and proactive force for change in South Dakota agriculture."

Once producers see their peers benefitting from programs supported by the foundation, Von Wald predicts they may be more likely to jump on board to contribute to the foundation. Until then, he said it's likely contributions will continue to come from businesses and larger producers.

"Anything that helps agriculture become more economically viable is good for business," Von Wald said when asked why a business should donate to the foundation.

Von Wald said a business heavily reliant on a successful agriculture industry like John Deere, for example, would likely see a return on its investment by supporting the foundation. If the company wants to sell more tractors or combines, Von Wald said, it relies on the success of producers.

Although agriculture is the state's biggest industry, Von Wald said there's nothing like South Dakota Agricultural Foundation currently in existence. The delay in establishing a ag-related foundation could have been influenced by the independent-thinking nature of a farmer, which Von Wald said is a good thing in business but can make it difficult to bring producers together toward a common goal.

With the foundation in place, Von Wald hopes to rally farmers, ranchers and businesses together as one.

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"We all have to participate in this if we're going to grow this to be something to sustain itself and really contribute," Von Wald said.

Related Topics: AGRICULTURE
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