Long-time lawmaker leaves Indiana General Assembly to focus on his farm
Indiana State Representative, agriculture advocate and farmer Don Lehe will retire from his duties as Indiana House District 25 representative, or as he puts it, “I’m just going to quit one of my jobs.”
Lehe has served the state for 20 years – first as the representative of District 15 and secondly in District 25 beginning in 2012. He will transition back as a full-time farmer at his family’s operation in Brookston, Ind. He and his wife, Kathy, live on Lehe Farms, Inc., and have two sons and two daughters. His eldest son, brother and nephew make up the four-man team that operates their corn, popcorn, soybean, hay and beef cattle farm full-time.
Stradling work as a full-time legislator and part of a fulltime farming operation is no easy feat, especially maintaining both during a 20-year period.
In fact, it would be a hopeless pursuit to do so without a lot of support back on the farm in times of absence. That is how, Lehe said, he has been able to get through all of these years. But even before becoming a state legislator, Lehe had 18 years under his belt on his local school board and serving on his county ag committee while farming.
“I was approached by some folks that were looking for someone to run for state representative, so that’s how I initially began to think about running for state representative,” Lehe said. “My wife and I talked about it, and we made a decision that we could do this. Being able to get away and do it the way I could is because I had family on the farm, and I could trust my family to take care of what I could not.”
Lehe grew up on the farm he operates and said he is happy to be on that spot he has been on for a long time – now without the hassle of commuting. Even so, he said there are things he will miss about being a state legislator.
“Off and on, there are some things I think I will miss about being a State Representative,” he said. “Twenty years is a long time, and there were times when it was tough to get away and back to the farm, but I will miss working with the other legislators and visiting with constituents around the district.”
Lehe and his wife have post-retirement plans of traveling to the East Coast to visit their daughters and their families as well as visit beaches in the South. Through the years, he has represented parts of nine counties and gotten to know several constituents in those areas.
“I will miss working with constituents and the other counties and other legislators — both on the Democrat and Republican sides of the aisle, so I’ll miss working with folks and with the different groups and agencies I worked closely with, and I’m going to miss that relationship.”
Pro-ag legislative work
Lehe worked hand-in-hand with commodity groups to produce pro-ag legislation and worked particularly with the Indiana Corn Growers Association (ICGA) and the Indiana Soybean Alliance Membership and Policy (M&P), as well as the Indiana Pork Producers and Cattlemen’s Association – just to name a few.
In his time as a legislator, he was involved with and chaired the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, sat on the Public Health and Environmental Affairs Committee and was the Vice Chair of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, among others. His involvement with these committees led Lehe to rack up quite the list of greatest hits in the category of ag legislation, though he insists such progress was the end product of many other legislators and organizations working together. “I would say one of the most important ones was very early on in my work in the legislation and that’s when Mitch Daniels was governor and he decided that Indiana needed a separate Department of Agriculture,” he said. “I wasn’t the author of it, but that legislation went through the agriculture committee, and we were really happy and grateful actually to get that accomplished.”
Then-Gov. Daniels suggested instituting an Indiana State Department of Agriculture (ISDA) because prior to having that agency, ag was just one part of Indiana’s Commerce Department, with the lieutenant governor acting as Secretary of Agriculture.
“That was probably, looking back, one of the most important things that I hope I helped with as a legislator,” Lehe said.
Lehe also considers his authoring of the legislation that established the Indiana Corn Marketing Council as one of his successes, in addition to establishing a market reporting service for Indiana livestock.
“Livestock folks in Indiana had limited ability to get information on market value of livestock in their state; so I worked with ISDA, and we created a market reporting service,” he said. “I used to get on the Internet and look up prices for cattle in Idaho or Illinois or Ohio or Kentucky and other states, but there were no places we could really look to see how livestock in Indiana would be marketed at the time.”
Having a heart for livestock agriculture, Lehe has also had a part in supporting the industry during times of anticonfined feeding operation efforts. He and other legislators have addressed this through the years by developing pieces of legislation that help protect the right of livestock producers to farm.
“We’ve had several cases of efforts to try to limit the production of livestock in Indiana, so over the years we’ve done different things legislatively to help secure that,” he said. “I consider it a basic right to farm in Indiana, so if there is an issue, we’ve made it so a judge can say ‘wait a minute, in Indiana farmers have the right to use this particular technology or process to farm.’”
Recent legislative victories
As recently as this year, Lehe has helped with legislation that addresses ownership of Indiana farmland by foreign entities.
“We were successful in getting some legislation that protects Indiana farmland, and it’s been interesting lately because of the Russia and Ukraine situation, and it’s specifically targeted toward Russian investments,” Lehe said. “That was some more recent legislation that I think was very helpful to Indiana farms; it limits people in foreign countries to 320 acres and 10 acres of forestland. We worked closely with all the commodity groups and in companies that were in the same business of livestock genetics and tried to come up with a pretty good solution that deals with foreign investment.”
Looking back on his beginnings as a legislator, Lehe said it’s easy to see how agriculture itself has changed in terms of technological advancement, but the same is true for the role of legislation when it comes to the industry.
“In terms of the role of ag and the government, I think probably I look at it a lot of times now and think not so much of what we can do in the industry, it’s more of how much can we prevent,” Lehe said. “We have to be on the lookout for anti-agriculture efforts or negative types of legislation in regards to agriculture. Technology and the environment and conservation issues have maybe changed the legislative side of ag in the state.”
As a producer himself, Lehe recognizes how environmentally conscious farmers must be. However, with so few legislators left who have actual farm experience, he believes support for commodity groups and associations is more important now than ever.
“I look at farmers and people who make a living off the land as people who are the most environmentally friendly on earth, so I don’t worry about that other than the influence that some anti-ag groups may carry it to the extreme,” he said. “I guess I just encourage farmers to be aware and help with your commodity group organizations. If you’re a crop producer, be involved with the corn, soybean or wheat organizations. Commodities are out there supporting your business, and they need your help. So, I just encourage farmers that getting involved with whatever commodity or business group available to them should be their priority.”
However, Lehe said, thankfully, he is not especially worried about the waning of active farmers in the Statehouse. He said there are several legislators who have ag backgrounds or family or neighbors that farm or agribusiness experience that can give them knowledge above the average consumer on the practicality and realities of agriculture.
“Especially in Indiana, we’ve got a good base of state government that has been supportive of state agriculture, and it’s a huge part of Indiana business,” Lehe said. “I just encourage farmers to be aware of what’s going on and be active with their support organizations. The anti-ag side is well-funded, and it’s a battle to keep ahead of it and educate the public and help them understand agriculture. That’s a big part of it.”