Dallas Tonsager, the chairman of the Farm Credit Administration since 2016 who earlier served as an undersecretary for rural development at USDA, died Tuesday after a battle with lymphoma. He was 64.
Tonsager, who grew up on a dairy farm near Oldham, S.D., was long active in rural development and with the Farm Credit System, which the FCA oversees.
Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that the Tonsager family "lost a loving husband and a caring father and grandfather, and rural America lost its champion. Dallas devoted his life to help those living and working in rural places have better opportunities."
Marshall Matz, a principal at OFW law who co-chaired presidential candidate Barack Obama's rural committee with Tonsager, said that Tonsager had "a profound impact on all of rural America. There was no better advocate for farmers and rural Americans or a more well liked person in farm country. Dallas was a totally non-partisan political appointee who just wanted to improve life for those in rural America."
Tonsager testified on behalf of the FCA at a hearing in April before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on the state of the farm economy.
He warned the lawmakers that the farm economy remains fragile due to depressed commodity prices and rising production costs. ”Many farmers and ranchers are facing declining financial conditions," he said.
Tonsager also assured the lawmakers the agency was hurrying to get guidance to the Farm Credit System on lending to farmers who wanted to grow industrial hemp following passage of the 2018 farm bill.
In an oral history interview posted by his alma mater, South Dakota State University, last year, Tonsager said the Farm Credit System is “extremely successful” and putting more focus on investing in housing, infrastructure and other rural needs.
“We’re opening some doors for the Farm Credit System to be engaged more deeply in rural America and take up in some ways where the federal government hasn’t been engaged in recent years,” he said.
He served two terms as president of the South Dakota Farmers Union from 1988 to 1993, when he was named by President Bill Clinton to be USDA’s state director for rural development in South Dakota, a job he held until Clinton left office in 2001.
In 2009, President Obama nominated Tonsager to be undersecretary for rural development at USDA, a position he served in until 2013.
While at USDA in that role, he oversaw an expansion of rural broadband development, expanded the department’s water and wastewater programs, increased funding for first- and second-generation biofuels production and worked with the Farm Credit System to establish venture capital funds.
Tonsager's work received bipartisan praise from leaders of the House Agriculture Committee.
Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said Tonsager "spent his career fighting on behalf of farmers and ranchers in his native South Dakota, and across the country. He worked especially hard to ensure the success of the biofuels industry, as well as highlighting the healthcare and broadband needs of rural America."
The committee's ranking member and former chairman, Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said: “Production agriculture and rural America are better off due to the hard work of Dallas Tonsager, and I was saddened to hear of his untimely passing.”
Tonsager was a founding member of Rural Americans for Obama, an ag- and rural-focused group that began supporting the future president in 2007. He also served on the FCA board from 2004 to 2009 and was appointed again to the board by Obama in 2015. Obama named him chairman in November 2016.
In other positions, Tonsager served on the board of National Farmers Union Insurance from 1989 to 1993 and he was a member of the advisory board for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission from 1990 to 1993. From 2002 to 2004, he was the executive director of the South Dakota Value-Added Agriculture Development Center.
Tonsager earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanized agriculture at South Dakota State.
His family plans to host a funeral service on Wednesday, May 29, at 10:30 am in Oldham, SD. More information and his obituary are posted at this link:
A memorial service in the District of Columbia will be scheduled later this summer.
(Updated 1 p.m. Wednesday with House Ag statements.)
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