In 1986, Zach Ducheneaux watched as his dad loaded their cows onto a truck to leave the ranch for good. He didn’t realize the weight of the situation then, and because of that he wasn’t afraid of going back.
Since February 2021, Ducheneaux has served as the administrator of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. Prior to that, he was a third-generation rancher on my family’s ranch on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation.
“I never heard my Dad complain about it,” Ducheneaux said of the 1980s farm loan crisis, when lenders suddenly quit lending to families like his. “He had the gift of stoicism or compartmentalizing — or whatever it is — that allowed him to not let us know, in that moment, that we were poor.”
Ducheneaux said it wasn’t until he reached college that he realized what his parents were protecting him from. Ducheneaux said his upbringing is part of his “why” he leads the FSA in the way he does today.
“It helps guide my approach to this, and there are going to be little things that don’t go your way, but you’ve got to keep your eye on the big picture and have the long range vision,” he said.
Ducheneaux gave the keynote speech at the the Upper Midwest Farmland Summit on Nov. 14 hosted by Farmland Access Hub, a consortium of entities including Renewing the Countryside who work together to improve farmland access for emerging farmers.
Feedback that Ducheneaux received at the summit were from farmers who had operations of their own in the ’80s and were impacted directly. He said he also hears from people in the administration who were kids like he was during the farm financial crisis.
“It’s still very prevalent on folks’ minds,” Ducheneaux said of the ’80s farm crisis. “And it’s important to stress that this iteration of the federal government is doing it different. We’re helping distressed borrowers, and we’re trying to find a way to help them navigate out of this with a positive outcome.”
Other reactions that Ducheneaux heard from attendees at the summit were about what the FSA is doing for underserved producers. One woman — a former FSA employee — mentioned that one of the reasons she left that job was she saw a preponderance of the financial benefits going to “corporate” farms.
“I shared with her what we’ve been doing in this administration to — as the Secretary puts it — fill the gaps that exist and meet producers where they’re at and provide assistance to the many,” Ducheneaux said. “And not just the few, so that we can help preserve that rural way of living.”
According to the FSA, every dollar lent through an FSA loan generates $1.36 into the local economy, and the work FSA did in 2022 put $1.3 billion into the livestock industry, supported 90,000 jobs, and created a $5.9 billion increase in GDP.
“If you’ve got more small farmers out there, now you’ve got a school, and when you’ve got a school, you’ve got a hospital, and if you’ve got a hospital, you’ve got a store,” he said. “Now you’ve got an economy churning out there in rural America, where maybe it was eroding away.”
For even people who lived through the farm crisis in the ’80s, there’s hope for a better farm finance world.
“Folks can start to see themselves in that reality. They can see themselves being in that rural community, and there’s that desire to be there,” Ducheneaux said. “After the ’80s farm crisis, there was an exodus, and it’s just my good fortune that our mom and dad shielded us from it, so we were still willing to go back. Otherwise it’d be another farming opportunity that was lost.”
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