Western South Dakota's Only Ranch Station
Oren Lesmeister and Will Mortenson
South Dakota Farmers Union recognizes Minority Leader Oren Lesmeister (left) and Majority Leader Will Mortenson (far right) for their dedication to serving South Dakota’s family farmers and ranchers with the Service to Agriculture Award, pictured here with Karla Hofhenke, SDFU Executive Director.

Lesmeister, Mortenson for Service to Agriculture Award

PIERRE, S.D. – Two champions of agriculture, Oren Lesmeister, Parade, S.D.,  and Will Mortenson, Ft. Pierre, S.D., who are also legislators were recognized by the South Dakota Farmers Union this week when they were presented with the Service to Agriculture Award.

“These two leaders worked diligently together during the 2023 legislative session ensuring their colleagues understand the needs of farmers and ranchers,” said Doug Sombke, President of South Dakota Farmers Union. “Their support is essential to family farmers and ranchers as we work with them during the 2024 session for more of the same. Due to the fact the majority of today’s legislators are far more removed from family farmers and ranchers while South Dakota’s No. 1 economic engine is agriculture.”

Working for South Dakota Agriculture

Lesmeister and Mortenson both grew up on South Dakota cattle ranches. Read on to learn about their passion for agriculture and their journeys to the South Dakota Legislature.

Oren Lesmeister and his wife, Tracy, are the third generation to operate the cow/calf operation his great-grandfather homesteaded in the early 1900s. To supplement the ranch income, the couple also own and operate a feed store, Fox Ridge Ag Supply.

Oren Lesmeister
Oren Lesmeister

His passion for agriculture and its people motivated him to serve as a state legislator.

“Today, even in South Dakota, our state is becoming more urban. It’s not a bad thing, but it is the reason we need to protect our way of life,” explained the State Minority Leader and District 28-A Representative. “There are more and more senators and representatives coming out of areas who do not understand what true farming and ranching life is like.”

Lesmeister said he became interested in politics nearly a decade ago when he was asked to drive to Pierre and testify. “Once I was sitting there listening to the discussion and testimony, I got interested in other bills that were being presented, so I started reading the bills.”

No stranger to public service – his parents both actively served on several community boards – when the legislator representing his district termed out and asked him to run, Lesmeister jumped at the opportunity.

A gregarious guy and small business owner, Lesmeister enjoyed the campaigning and found himself paying close attention to customers’ political thoughts and comments, when they stopped by Fox Ridge Ag Supply for feed, seed or other supplies.

“Talking to my customers is a great way to understand what my constituents want. I am also blessed to know virtually every member of the tribal council because I either went to school with them, or I grew up as neighbors to them,” said the 1984 graduate of Cheyenne Eagle Butte High School.

Although he didn’t win the first time he ran, Lesmeister decided to give it another try in 2016 and secured a seat. Through his role as a South Dakota State Legislator and Minority Leader Lesmeister said he works to continue to build bridges for family farmers and ranchers and provide a voice in the State Capitol for the issues that impact their farms, ranches, and families.

Will Mortenson grew up helping on his family’s Stanley County ranch, “from the time I was old enough to brave the cold and stay in the saddle.”

Today, the Majority Leader returns to help out on the ranch as often as possible. “I tell people I have two half-time jobs and one full-time job. My half-time jobs are serving as a legislator and cowhand for my dad and uncle.”

Mortenson’s full-time career is that of an attorney. His firm focuses on agriculture law.

“In law school I chose to specialize in agriculture law so I could become a capable advocate for farmers and ranchers,” explained Mortenson, whose law office is just three blocks from the grade school he attended in Fort Pierre.

Will Mortenson
Will Mortenson

Although he works in all areas of agriculture law, he said he most enjoys succession planning.

“The most fulfilling part of my job is helping an agriculture producer, who has toiled on the land their entire life – five, six or seven decades – and getting them on a path so that their land will remain in their family for the next century,” Mortenson said.

Reflecting on his own family’s connection to the land, the enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe said he understands family farmers’ and ranchers’ tie to the land is much more than a business connection.

“Agriculture is not just an industry. It is more cultural. It literally comprises the soul of our state,” Mortenson said. “This is the reason it is so important to protect it. Not only for economic reasons, but cultural reasons as well.”

Mortenson’s connection to the land and the fact he lives just across the river from Pierre with his wife, Shuree, and their two children, motivated him to run for office when he returned to Fort Pierre after graduating from law school in 2016.

“When I moved back from law school, it seemed like the process I’d known and admired was starting to get nastier and less functional,” explained Mortenson, who worked for Gov. Dennis Daugaard after receiving his undergraduate degree and before law school. “I thought, living here, I could have a front row seat to watch the state I love crumble. But since I knew I was going to live here for another 50 or 60 years, I decided to get involved.”

Mortenson ran in a five-way primary and ended up being the candidate voters wanted. He has served since 2020.

South Dakota Farmers Union is the state’s largest agriculture organization. The awards were presented on behalf of its nearly 19,000 members.

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