At the end of this month, South Dakota’s Secretary of Agriculture is stepping down. Secretary Walt Bones has steered the department for just more than two years. His service ends on April 29, and Governor Dennis Daugaard has appointed Lucas Lentsch as Bones’ successor.
The South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture says he made the decision to step down from his government position when he accepted the appointment in January of 2011.
"Talking with my wife and family, we thought a two year sabbatical would work well, so I appreciate their giving me this opportunity to jump into public service for a while and serve the industry, and it’s just been a marvelous experience," Secretary Walt Bones says.
Bones says his time is up, and he’s resigning after more than two years at the helm of South Dakota’s Department of Agriculture. He says he’s impressed by the dedication and work ethic of employees in state government and people within the agriculture industry.
"It’s just been fun to work with all of them and to truly appreciate that, when we’re all working together toward a common goal, what we can accomplish," Bones says. "Probably the efforts having to do with some of the flooding issues, it was amazing what we accomplished in such a short amount of time."
Bones says it’s been an honor to serve the industry; he spends the next few weeks preparing to leave the office as his successor, Lucas Lentsch, readies for the leadership position. South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard appoints a man with a different perspective on Agriculture. Lentsch grew up on a family dairy farm in northeast South Dakota.
"I’ve always been in and around agriculture from my earliest memories, whether that be the corn fields of Iowa detassling with my brothers to milking cows in my junior high and high school years, and then also working in the food and beverage manufacturing world after college," Lentsch says. "I’ve gotten to know a universe of food and beverage companies from across the country as well as getting to know the farmers and ranchers right here in South Dakota. When you’re Secretary of Agriculture, it’s a very diverse group of people that you work with and work for, frankly."
Lentsch says that creates a solid foundation for his start as agriculture Secretary. Lentsch isn’t a stranger to the department, either. He worked for the state’s Ag Department for about 16 months as Director of Agriculture Development, but he left in August to pursue work at a private investment firm. Lentsch says he’s prepared to come back to public service.
"Personally I was at a point, as a husband and father of four, looking to return to the private sector and continue to do the good work with farmers and ranchers on the private side, but that all changed when the governor called," Lentsch says. "It wasn’t part of the plan initially but very happy to be asked to join the team."
That transition, however, puts some people in the agricultural industry on alert. The South Dakota Farmers Union is an organization for ranchers and farmers. Doug Sombke serves as president.
"And I know some of our members are a little concerned that he did leave the Department of Ag before to go to private industry and, you know, why would he accept a role to come back. And Lucas explained that his heart is still in agriculture and that’s why he accepted the role, and he knows it’s going to be a heavy responsibility," Sombke says. "And I said, you know, you need to explain that to the people moving the way you have away and now back. I think that will set a lot of minds at ease."
Sombke says some Farmers Union members also question how Lentsch’s former position as head of the South Dakota Republican Party affects his new duties as Secretary of Agriculture.
"That’s something that, you know, some people will be concerned about, and I’m sure Lucas will do a good job explaining his position in being able to differentiate the position at his former life to what he’ll be doing today for the state farmers and ranchers," Sombke says.
Sombke says he’s talked to Lentsch about members’ concerns and anticipates an open, honest relationship between producers and the state ag department. But Sombke admits it’s hard to lose South Dakota’s current secretary.
"Walt Bones is just a salt-of-the-earth good individual. You know where you stand with Walt; he’ll tell you the straight facts. He’s not crowding around any type of bush or hiding anything," Sombke says. "He’s always been a very good and easy individual to work with. He’s just a typical farmer in South Dakota."
"Well, one thing’s for sure. Secretary Bones is absolutely one of the best public servants I’ve ever been around," Lentsch says. "I couldn’t possibly be in more of a difficult position trying to fill his shoes. I would share with you that he is someone that has been absolutely out in front of the industry, been all over the state. If there’s someone in Ag in South Dakota that hasn’t had a chance to visit with him, I would be surprised, because I think he’s that accessible and, frankly, that transparent on everything he’s been working on."
Incoming Ag Secretary Lucas Lentsch won’t be alone in his new venture. He credits more than one hundred people within the department for their expertise, and outgoing Secretary Walt Bones says he isn’t disappearing.
"It’s somewhat bittersweet. You don’t invest this much time into an effort and punch the clock, slam the door behind you and walk away," Bones says. "I have told him that any way that I can help him and the department, I’m more than willing to help. So I hope to continue helping in some respect."
Secretary Bones says he leaves office knowing the department has a strong structure that facilitates cooperation. In a few weeks, he returns to his family farming operation near Parker, South Dakota, while all of the state’s farmers and ranchers adjust to a new leader of the state’s largest industry.