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Passionate about farming, Vanneman leads state's ag interests

Kim Vanneman, a Tripp County farmer and former state legislator, started her duties as South Dakota's Secretary of Agriculture on Monday in Pierre. (Matt Gade / Republic)1 / 2
South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture Kim Vanneman, front row third from left, receives a round of applause after being singled out by Gov. Kristi Noem in the State of the State address on Tuesday at the State Capitol in Pierre. (Matt Gade / Republic)2 / 2

PIERRE — Kim Vanneman is not boastful about her new role as South Dakota's agriculture secretary.

She doesn't need to be. After all, her new boss is handling that.

Gov. Kristi Noem picked Vanneman, a Tripp County farmer and former state legislator, to be her new secretary of the state's Department of Agriculture. Noem then specifically praised Vanneman in Tuesday's State of the State Address at the Capitol.

"Kim is very different from any ag secretary South Dakota has ever had before," Noem said in her inaugural state of the state address on Tuesday. "She truly brings a new perspective to the table. I'm grateful for the ways she has been an ag leader in our state — on the farm, in the legislature, in the boardroom and as a mom passing along her love of agriculture to her kids. She is going to make a great ag secretary."

Vanneman said in an interview this week with The Daily Republic that "agriculture is my life," while adding that Noem and herself were "both pretty much on the same page" when they met about the job. As secretary, she'll be the state's top representative for a $25 billion industry that is responsible for 20 percent of the state's economic activity, and has 46,000 producers on 31,000 farms or ranches.

"I'm just honored to be asked to be in this role and excited to get started, and basically ready to roll my sleeves up like I do out on the farm, and get the tasks done that need to be done," Vanneman said.

Vanneman was raised on a farm and ranch near Chamberlain. Except for four years to go to college, she said has spent her entire life on the farm. She graduated from South Dakota State University in Brookings with a degree in animal science and a emphasis on business.

"And I was back home on the farm on the weekends," she said of her time in college.

Vanneman represented Gregory and Tripp counties while in the Legislature, and believes that time will serve her well in leading the ag department. She spent all six years of her time in the House of Representatives on the Agriculture Committee, with two years each as the committee's chairman and vice chair. Her government experience also includes serving on the South Dakota Transportation Commission since 2015.

"I think that gives me an edge," she said. "I understand the legislative process, how the committees work and that type of thing, so bringing that to this role will be very helpful, to have that understanding."

She has been heavily involved with the Farm Credit System, including as an elected director on the board of Farm Credit Services of America for the last 12 years. She was involved in the governance of the system, as well as supporting legislation and policy on the federal level.

Changes coming

Vanneman said she's appreciative of where South Dakota stands in agriculture today, as a state that doesn't overburden farmers with regulations.

"You know, I think right now we're fortunate in South Dakota in a lot of regards. ... The state doesn't overburden us a whole lot," Vanneman said. "As far as right now with the way the agricultural economy is, and the low prices, me as a producer, I feel that pinch."

As secretary, Vanneman said she will work to provide as many opportunities for South Dakota farmers as possible, including trying to open trade on a state level.

"I think that for me, you look under every box and open every door. We investigate," she said, speaking about promoting trade. "The glass is half full and we keep looking to see (what's possible), and to promote our ag industry."

Noem on Tuesday outlined a few items that will be different under her administration from an agricultural perspective. Most significantly, she said she will move the agriculture development personnel previously located in Vanneman's department to the Governor's Office of Economic Development. Under the Department of Agriculture, that division has been involved with site analysis, beginning farming operations, retaining dairy, local food products and international trade.

"This makes sense, because ag development is economic development," Noem said in her address. "For years, these two departments have largely performed the same functions when it comes to ag development. This move will consolidate their resources, it will make them more efficient, their brainpower can work together to create more tools for development, eliminate red tape, and create a better approach to developing our largest industry and create a lasting infrastructure for the next generation."

Noem also said she wants to put an emphasis on using agriculture to innovate on a worldwide scale, possibly working on new therapies for human disease or crop technologies. She also said she will work to protect property rights and give more young people opportunities to have success in South Dakota as farmers and ranchers.

"We both want to promote and protect and preserve agriculture in South Dakota," Vanneman said. "And today and tomorrow and the generations ahead."

Adjusting to the new job

Vanneman, who will turn 62 on Sunday, said her family's farm — located 14 miles north of Winner with an Ideal address — includes raising row crops, small grains, a hog-finishing operation, a beef cow herd and a feedlot. Her son, Justin, and daughter-in-law, Tasha, are also involved in the ownership of the farm. Vanneman said they're increasing involvement in the operations, which makes this a fitting time to transition to the new position. In all, Vanneman has three adult children, all married and involved in agriculture, along with four grandchildren.

"This is full time and I knew that going in, and we'll get it all done," she said.

Vanneman will be paid $123,000 annually as secretary. Her husband, Clint, has been a commissioner on the South Dakota Wheat Commission Board of Directors since 2010. That commission is administered under the state Department of Agriculture and his term ends on Oct. 30, 2019.

As secretary, Vanneman said she will look closely to prioritize value-added agricultural projects and efforts. She noted that she witnessed the impact of getting rail line extended in nearby Lyman County, and the addition of a grain-handling facility in Kennebec as being critical for her part of South Dakota, and an issue that farmers in other parts of the country don't realize what kind of challenge that is.

"That really is huge for that part of the state," Vanneman said. "Quite honestly, where we're located, not being close to rail has been a tough deal."

South Dakota has seen a proliferation of commercial animal feeding operations in the state, and some of the controversies they bring from neighbors who don't want the projects in their area. Vanneman was diplomatic about how she feels about the issue, calling it very complicated.

"It starts clear back with zoning and permitting," she said. "My viewpoint on that, which I've always had and hasn't changed since I've gotten into this role, is that we all need to work together. We need to get the information out. People need to be able to do what they want to do, but they have to respect their neighbors in how they do that."

In her first week of the job, Vanneman said she's been having a "fantastic time."

"It was overwhelming, it was at some points hectic, it was great," she said. "I just kind of got in the car to go home and I had to pinch myself. This is something I'm really excited about."