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Representatives Explore Fertile Lands of Innovation

For the second time in its four-year existence, the American Congressional Exchange arrived in the home state of one of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s four founders: South Dakota’s former Senator Tom Daschle. While Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-SD) represents the entire state at-large, this trip focused on the southeastern corner, the I-29 corridor that eventually makes its way north to the Canadian border.

Visiting Rep. Johnson from one state over was Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN), who represents the western and southern suburbs of Minneapolis. Rep. Johnson visited Rep. Phillips district in August 2021. In addition to representing their districts as a whole, both representatives serve on multiple committees. Rep. Johnson serves on the House Agriculture Committee and Transportation & Infrastructure Committee and Rep. Phillips serves on the House Foreign Affairs and Small Business Committees.

To start off the trip, the two members visited two communities that are deeply rooted in South Dakota; the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe and the Pleasant Valley Hutterite Colony. While visiting with Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, the members learned about how the tribe provides health and long-term care services to its members. The visit also included a discussion between the members about the economic development of the tribal community and how the community has been accessing U.S. HUD grants to build additional housing.

The members then visited with leaders from the Pleasant Valley Colony, a communal German-speaking people who came from Russia in the 1870s. About 25 families live and work together, mainly in agriculture. But now, some of the colony has entered the metals manufacturing field. The two congressmen saw the juxtaposition of traditional farming and modern metallurgical machinery being operated by highly skilled members of the colony. As the trip continued, growth and innovation in South Dakota became a main focus. South Dakota’s population is growing at a fast pace – up 9% since 2010. This is particularly evident in the Sioux Falls metro area, which grew by 48% between 2000-2020 and now stands at 282,000. Driving around the region, one sees the construction of subdivisions with few natural barriers to development.

Meeting with Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken, the two members heard about some of Sioux Falls’ challenges managing its growth. Recently, the city broke ground on a $215 million expansion of its wastewater treatment plant which will result in a 50% increase in capacity. Mayor TenHaken said infrastructure projects like this will position Sioux Falls and the region for continued development.

Much of the trip was also focused on agriculture and new technologies being developed in the state to create greater efficiencies and crop yields. At Raven Industries Innovation Campus in Baltic, the members learned about new autonomous products such as field computers, planter controls, and GPS guidance systems. One highlight: each congressman took a ride on a combine synced with a driverless grain tractor.

At Prairie Aquatech in Brookings, Reps. Johnson and Phillips learned about the company’s high protein nutritional ingredients which are used in their state-of-the-art aquaculture research lab for a variety of cultured species including shrimp. They also toured the firm’s manufacturing plant in Volga which produces the protein ingredients.

Both Raven Industries and Prairie Aquatech have benefitted from collaborations with South Dakota State University in Brookings, which shows the need for greater federal investment in rural areas. SDSU shows how a public higher education institution can transfer technology and spawn innovative tech companies (in this case, agriculture). Yet, smaller institutions like SDSU must compete with the MITs and CalTechs of the world which often beat them for NIH, DOD, and other federal investments.

Places like South Dakota need to be a priority for federal funding, even though they don’t make the “tech headlines.” Both Reps. Johnson and Phillips believe that with additional federal investment, rural communities like those in South Dakota could make significant economic gains, build stronger connections across state and country lines.

Also in Brookings, Reps. Johnson and Phillips toured a 3M manufacturing facility that employs over 1,000 people and makes 1,700 different products, including complex medical dressings, medical tapes, surgical drapes, biological indicators, and food safety products. The two members were astounded by the sophisticated mechanization of the operation and the scale of products coming off the line. Watching huge rolls of surgical tape, the length of four football fields, being cut into a size that you can grip with your thumb and finger, showed the contrast of volume and customer use.

At Scott VaderWal’s farm, the owner and representatives of the South Dakota Farm Bureau demonstrated that traditional farming is very much alive in South Dakota, but with the use of complex genetic engineering for field management and the production of livestock. Though VanderWal was also quick to remind the congressmen that even with control over many of the inputs in farming, he and his colleagues are still at the mercy of the natural elements, particularly rainwater, as his farm does not sit on an aquifer.

One of the stops on the second day presented a different use of livestock. Instead of milking cows or raising bovines for their meat, SAb Biotherapeutics is using the animals to draw large quantities of blood plasma which can produce full human antibodies. These high-potency, fully human polyclonal antibodies can then target specific diseases. SAb is working with a U.S. Government-led Rapid Response Antibody Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Defense, and accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic response. The company is the only one in the world making human polyclonal antibodies without human donors. This stop visibility piqued Rep. Phillips’ interest as he represents a congressional district in Minnesota, where health care technology is a major employer.

Other visits included the Greater Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce for a small business roundtable and a tour of the South Dakota Air National Guard. The Air National Guard trains and prepares men and women to respond to state emergencies and is at the call of the President in times of domestic or international crisis.

BPC expects the relationship between Reps. Dusty Johnson and Dean Phillips will continue to flourish. Despite their political party differences, these two members have found not only mutual respect but a genuine interest in partnering on future legislative initiatives that can help both their states and the nation.

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