I wasn’t going to write this blog.

It was just too personal.

My friends at Agri-Pulse are still grieving the loss of Stewart Doan, but we’ve lost another giant as well, and I cannot let his passing pass by without comment.

Last week I said good bye to a friend, a mentor and the man who taught me that politics can be an honorable profession.  Nationally, Senator James (Jim) Abdnor (R-SD) was known for defeating Senator George McGovern (D-SD), serving one term in the Senate and then being defeated by Senator Tom Daschle (D-SD).   At home in South Dakota, where he was known as Jim, he had a much broader and much deeper legacy.   He had tried his hand as coach, teacher and farmer, but his true calling was serving the people of his state., Politics came naturally to him—not sound bites, attack ads and glittery speeches—but working with and for rural communities and the individuals you come to know well enough to ask how the family’s doing before engaging on  the issue of the day.

In 1985, Senator Abdnor asked me to intern in his D.C. office—not because my family were big political donors or were well-connected in South Dakota politics—we were neither. But I had met the Senator on a 4-H leadership trip, and he saw something in me that I wasn’t aware of at the time.  With staff changes that summer, I wound up filling in as legislative assistant for agriculture, working on farm policy for a U.S. Senator in the midst of writing a farm bill and facing a tough election on the horizon.    That experience forever changed my plans as a college student to return directly to the ranch.   

My time with Senator Abdnor launched me on 25 years of farm policy work, but the true life lesson that Senator Abdnor left with me and everyone who worked with him was the value of humility, kindness and caring for others.   He taught us all that everyone, in every station of life had value and deserved respect.   It wasn’t until after his Senate defeat that it became apparent how respected he was in the U.S. Capitol  complex because he had in turn respected the police officers, the wait staff and elevator operators who quietly and unobtrusively make the complex run smoothly and safely. 

The 1985 farm bill was forged in the middle of a genuine farm crisis.  We needed to reform farm policy while providing farmers a working safety net.   Several farm state senators and representatives voted against the final package because it just “wasn’t good enough,” but my senator voted for it.  After the vote, as we walked back to the office, he commented on the magnitude of the vote.    We both knew that it would become one of the core issues in the subsequent campaign.  However, like many politicians of his generation, he never avoided or shirked tough decisions. He understood making those difficult decisions and casting potentially unpopular votes were part of the privilege of public service.  

Unfortunately, this is a legacy that today is neither embraced by the public nor the public servant.  Right now we are in the middle of working on the 2012 farm, but for much of rural America, times are pretty good.    The result is that we are not really focusing on the farm, food and conservation policy needed today to enable us to feed the nine billion souls expected on this planet in 40 years.  Rather, the dialog is on how to re-carve a shrinking baseline of farm supports and whether more support goes to farmers in the South or Midwest.   We certainly aren’t headed to a farm bill debate where senatorial or congressional careers will be decided by the tough decisions made on the farm bill.    We aren’t willing to take the necessary risks to develop the farm policy that American farmers—and a world of hungry people—really need for the long-term. 

I miss Senator Abdnor.   He left a special legacy, and I was privileged to be part of it.  But his commitment to public service as a high calling isn’t unique to South Dakota politics.  It has been repeated over and over in every state, in every political party at the national, state and local level.   Somehow, as a country we need to bring that legacy back into the forefront of politics.  The public must demand more of its public servants, and our elected officials must rise to a higher level of expectations.  Senator John Thune (R-SD) delivered the eulogy at Senator Abdnor’s funeral.  He said, “Everything that I have learned that is good about politics I learned from Senator Abdnor.”  Regardless of one’s profession or calling, that is a good phrase to live and strive for—to have those who follow us declare that they have learned “all that is good” about our profession from our example.

Good bye, faithful public servant and friend.   

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems.

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