Dallas Tonsager

Oldham dairy farmer to undersecretary of agriculture in D.C.

Twenty-five years as a dairy farmer and the habit-forming schedule it demands have served Dallas Tonsager well.

Dallas Tonsager was appointed undersecretary of agriculture by President Barack Obama.

“It’s pretty intense,” says Tonsager of his job as undersecretary of agriculture for rural development in the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. “I wake up early, and I’m usually at work before seven. I have a great staff, many of whom I have worked with for years.”

The 1976 SDSU graduate has indeed come far since his days on the family farm near Oldham. The operation, dubbed Plainview Farm, raises corn, soybeans, wheat, and hay.

Tonsager was an active farmer and businessman up until 2009 when he was appointed undersecretary by President Barack Obama. However, he still owns farming assets that he rents to his brother.

Now, instead of working the land and caring for cows, Tonsager helms an agency that oversees $37.5 billion annually in grants and loans to fund the building of housing and health facilities, energy development as well as construction of high-speed Internet, water, sewer, electric, and phone service in rural areas. His division employs 6,000 in about 500 offices nationwide.

During a busy week, Tonsager has about forty meetings and events to attend, crosscrossing the country giving speeches. His favorite topic is bio-energy, because, as he says, “It creates jobs, wealth, and markets for farmers. I’m also very interested right now in the need for investment capital in rural America.”

Well groomed for job

With thirty-five years of agricultural, business, cooperative, and financial experience, Tonsager fits the position well with his down-to-earth demeanor and a genuine appreciation and knowledge of rural life.

“I like it because I have an ability to reach every corner of America,” he observes. “I have been in small towns and on farms in all fifty states. I get to see the enormous amount of creativity in rural America. I believe rural America will lead the country out of its current economic difficulties and into the future.”

Back in his twenties, though, Tonsager’s only plan was to be a farmer. Majoring in mechanized agriculture, he spent weekends and summers helping on the family farm located thirty miles south of Brookings.

Tonsager got his first taste of politics as a freshman, thanks to fellow Oldham native and SDSU student Gary Duffy, who convinced him of doing volunteer work for then presidential candidate George McGovern.

“It was a very tough first experience in politics with his huge loss that fall,” he says. “I did go back and volunteer for him again in 1974 when he was running for the Senate. The local coordinator was Tom Daschle, our future Senate Majority Leader.”

Changes come with presidents

After earning his degree, Tonsager began farming full-time. At the same time, he became more involved politically and was active in the South Dakota Farmers Union, eventually becoming the union’s state president.

In 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected president, Daschle asked Tonsager to be the state director of what was then called the Farmers Home Administration, later Rural Development.

“It gave me a great taste of what economic and rural development on the ground is like,” he recalls.

When George W. Bush moved into the White House in January 2001, Tonsager, as a political appointee, left his office. While still maintaining farming interests, he started a development business involving several projects, including a blue cheese processing plant in Wisconsin.

Agriculture Undersecretary for Rural Development Dallas Tonsager (right) came to rural Colorado for Earth Day April 2010 to announce water system funding for the area. Tonsager discusses the funding initiative with John Dover (left), honorary utility board member, and Board President Ron Weien.

In 2003, the South Dakota Value-Added Agricultural Development Center hired Tonsager to be its executive director, which “allowed me to continue my focus on development work and stay in my home state.”

A “really big surprise and opportunity” came in 2004 when Bush appointed him to serve on the bipartisan Farm Credit Administration. The bipartisan three-member group regulates the farm credit system, which provides one-third of the agricultural credit in the country.

Helping Obama win

In 2007, during a conversation Tonsager was having with his friend, Marshall Matz, the two decided to start a group called “Rural Americans for Obama.”

“We advised him and proposed much of the rural agenda and campaigned with him, especially in Iowa and several other key primary states,” he says.

When the election was over, Tonsager was part of the transition team and was later nominated by Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be undersecretary of rural development.

“It’s been a wild and exciting ride,” replies Tonsager, when quizzed on his career. As for ever imaging himself working at such a high level, he emphatically answers, “Never! It seems like the most remote possibility even now. I am grateful everyday to be here and have the chance to do this job in this administration.”

Tonsager and his wife, Sharon, a Howard native, have two sons. Keith is employed at a marketing firm in D.C. and Joshua works for Senator Tim Johnson on agricultural and rural issues.

They return to South Dakota three or four times a year, making stops in Oldham, Huron (former home), Howard and Brookings. Last fall, they attended SDSU’s Hobo Day football game.

When his undersecretary days are over, Tonsager and Sharon know where they want to settle.

“We will come back to South Dakota when we are done here and I’ll find something else to do,” he says. “I don’t have specific plans to be an active farmer anymore, but I still like to get on a tractor for a day or two.”

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