PIERRE, S.D. — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem says merging the state Department of Agriculture with the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources will “make sure agriculture stays the priority” in the state.

Noem, in a call with ag groups, farmers and other interested parties on Wednesday, Jan. 6, said the move would ensure that inspectors and regulators who make decisions that impact agriculture have backgrounds in agriculture.

“Agriculture and conservation go hand in hand, so it makes sense to combine the two,” she said.

RELATED STORY: South Dakota to move forward on merger of ag and environment departments

The state Legislature can oppose Noem’s merger proposal but does not need to approve it. Noem said the merger of the departments would ensure someone with agricultural experience is involved in regulation concerning agriculture, would save money by eliminating redundancies in state government, and would provide better customer service to the people of the state. Noem did not give any details about the cost savings, other than that five positions and a secretary position would be eliminated. None of the people called on during the conference questioned the money side of the merger. Not all people who sought to ask a question or give a comment were called on.

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Noem listed her ag bonafides in the call, including that she grew up in agriculture and has experienced its ups and downs.

“That’s the heart that I’m speaking of you all from today,” she said.

Noem called on a handful of people, mostly ag group leaders who indicated they already had been in contact with Noem, Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden or the governor’s office. Though most said they support the governor’s move in theory and appreciate her concern for regulation in agriculture, they also said they have heard concerns that the move might be shortsighted and set up difficulties under future administrations.

Chad Blindauer, with the South Dakota Corn Growers Association, said part of the concern is that while the move right now would give a voice to agriculture on environmental issues, it may someday give more of a voice to environmental advocates on ag issues and leave farmers and ranchers without someone in their corner.

“The concern is that we’re going to lose our voice — the Department of Ag — that advocates for us as producers,” he said on the call.

Noem said she expected opposition from "out-of-state" environmental groups but not from South Dakota farmers and ranchers.

“I’m shocked that producers think that I would do something that would hurt agriculture,” she said.

Noem is not concerned that the move could prove detrimental in the future.

“South Dakota has never had a governor who is anti-agriculture,” she said. “I can’t imagine we ever would.”

Another caller, identified only as “Christina,” said she is a specialty crops producer and is concerned the move will split the ag department’s priorities in such a way that it will not have resources to consider programs that neighboring states like Minnesota and Iowa have implemented for specialty crops and local food systems. She also said she worries that having someone with ag experience in charge of regulation might set up conflicts of interest when it comes time to consider environmental impacts of agricultural operations, noting that not all farmers and ranchers consider water quality and soil health.

Noem called farmers and ranchers “the best conservationists,” and urged the caller to contact the department of agriculture regarding programs in other states that might be a fit in South Dakota.

One policy Noem is proposing along with the merger is a tax break for farmers who install riparian buffer strips.

“That underlying property tax incentive law, we're looking at ways to improve that, while also providing a new project-based solution that provides producers on a voluntary basis an incentive to follow those guidelines,” said Hunter Roberts, the secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Roberts would become the secretary of the merged department, if it goes through.

Noem also discussed other ag policy items her office has worked on in recent years or is working on:

  • Senate Bill 157 in the 2020 Legislature streamlined conditional use permits, making it easier to start ag businesses. She said 22 new ag businesses got off the ground in the state in 2020. RELATED STORY:Several bills have crossed the finish line of the 2020 South Dakota Legislative Session with governor's signature

  • Noem said her office is proposing a $5 million meat processing grant program to expand meat processing capabilities in the state.

  • Noem also said her office is working on getting a Cooperative Interstate Shipment program going, which would allow state-inspected meat facilities to sell across state lines. RELATED STORY: SD continues to address meat processing needs

  • Noem said she is proposing a $19 million investment in a livestock facility at the South Dakota State fairgrounds in Huron. The facility would host events “that we’ve never been able to host,” she said. “It will become a nationwide, renowned location for people to hold their livestock events going forward.”

Michelle Rook contributed to this report.