An American Star
By the age of eight most of us have a firm grasp on the English language, the state capitals, and the schedule of Saturday morning cartoons. By the time Jason Frerichs had turned eight, he had taken childhood a few steps further.
When he was in the third grade, Jason joined 4-H—a well-known youth organization that has a strong connection with leadership development throughout rural and urban communities.
At age 12, he became a member of Future Farmers of America (FFA)—where he began laying a foundation of experience that would prove helpful during his time spent as a farmer, teacher, and public servant—all by the age of 25.
Jason was named the American Star in Agriculture Placement for the National FFA Organization in 2005—an award given to the top performers of the organization, which mentors half a million aspiring ag professionals.
A fourth generation farmer, it is no surprise that Jason felt compelled to join these groups—he had agriculture in his blood. Growing up on a farm in South Dakota, he watched his father raise corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and wheat. He saw what worked, what didn't, and how to fix it, on a first-hand basis. But Jason quickly realized that it's not enough to be a good farmer and a responsible businessman. In order to operate a farm successfully, you need support from your government in the form of sound policies and a reliable backstop.
Fortunately for the people of South Dakota, Jason had legislating in his blood too.
At the age of 23, Jason joined three generations before him, and became the fourth member of the Frerichs family to represent the 1st District of South Dakota in the state legislature.
Today, a champion for agriculture, small business owners, education, and young professionals, he certainly has a full plate, but all of that whipping and spurring on the Senate floor doesn't distract him from the work that needs to be done on the farm.
Frerichs farms with his brothers Aaron and Ryan, as well as his father, Kent, and mother, Faye, and manages his 150 cow/calf operation on 5,000 acres of crop, pasture, and hay land.
Unfortunately, even with this impressive resume, established South Dakota roots, and highly esteemed positions in both the state legislature (he now serves in the Senate as Minority Leader) and the agricultural community, Jason finds it impossible to get a loan on his own, still finding that he has to ask his parents to cosign with him.
"Access to land is imperative to young farmers trying to compete," says Jason of the barriers that he faces as an aspiring producer. "They need to be confident that they can survive through to the next harvest, because they place every little bit of that borrowed capital into the first year. They need to be able to roll that investment into the next year and so on."
Having an established and operational family farm serves as a foundation that Jason has been able to build upon. Once his father slowed down production to spend more time teaching (he was Jason's FFA advisor), Jason's older brother stepped in to manage the crop production. Later, when Jason finished school, he returned to the farm to restart the cattle business that his family had moved away from years before due to time and monetary costs.
"If young people don't have something to start from, it's very difficult to make that leap. In this immediate region we had a lot of support from our parents' generation. Out of 27 people in my graduating class, there are three of us back on the farm. In a community of 600 people, that's not bad—but I think we're the exception."
The continuous rise in input costs has proven to be yet another barrier that young people looking to break into farming are dealing with. "Young farmers are renting land at higher costs. They're aggressive at seeking new land, so they have to pay more just to compete," Jason explains.
But, through all the risk and regulations, he believes that there is hope for the next generation.
At a recent White House briefing with members of the rural community, President Obama expressed his belief that ag needs to be at the forefront of our discussions about the future of the economy. Not just when the Farm Bill is up for renegotiation, but all the time.
Jason, who attended the meeting on behalf of the U.S. Cattleman's Association, said that the president does seem to think of agriculture as a central part our everyday lives.
"He said that when he thinks of trade, he thinks of agricultural commodities that we import and export. When he thinks of transportation, he thinks of the goods and services that consistently travel in and out of rural America. And when he thinks of infrastructure, he thinks of the necessary efforts being made to ensure that broadband is available in every rural community in the country."
Jason didn't let the president do all of the talking though. He made sure to let him know that Congress and the White House need to step up and show support for certain programs that will better the industry.
He believes we need to focus part of our conservation efforts toward working land programs—which can give young farmers land on which to operate, while teaching them to do so in a sustainable and respectful way—through initiatives like the Conservation Stewardship Program.
He also expressed the importance of protecting entrepreneurs who want to move back to rural America, and ensure that risk management and crop insurance continue.
"They work. They give us an element of control over what we can do to insure our investment, and they give our young farmers the confidence they need to get started."
And as a young farmer himself, Jason knows a thing or two about what it takes to get started. It seems in this case, the student has become the teacher—literally.