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South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem signs executive order on department merger

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has signed an executive creating a new Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the result of a merger between the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

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South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem steps up to the microphone to deliver her annual State of the State address in the House chambers of the state Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 12. Christopher Vondracek/Forum News Service

PIERRE, S.D. — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has signed an executive order to merge the state Department of Agriculture and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Under the order, both former departments are to be abolished, with their duties transferred to a new department to be called the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Hunter Roberts, current Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources and acting-Secretary of Agriculture, will serve as the cabinet secretary for the new department, a statement from Noem's office said.

According to the South Dakota Constitution, governors are allowed to make such organizational orders unilaterally. The orders must come within five legislative days of the start of a legislative session then are enacted in 90 days unless a majority of members of either the state House or Senate disapprove of it.

“With this merger, we are fostering sustainable agriculture and conservation that we can pass on to our kids and grandkids,” Noem said in a statement. “This merger will simplify life for South Dakota’s agriculture producers by creating a one-stop shop in state government. It will also save taxpayers money by streamlining the state’s regulatory bodies, eliminating redundancies, and creating a better customer service experience for all.”

Roberts, in a statement, said he is excited "for the synergies that this merger will create."

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“Governor Noem has a tremendous vision for the next generation of agriculture, and we’re excited to see it through,” he said.

Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden previously served as interim Secretary of Agriculture for the state and will continue to serve as Agriculture Ambassador.

“Governor Noem and I are the only farmer/rancher duo in the country to be serving as Governor and Lieutenant Governor,” he said in a statement. “We are excited for the potential that this merger has to unleash the next generation of agriculture for our state. I look forward to continue working as an ambassador to the agriculture industry.”

The merger has received mixed reactions from the state's largest agriculture groups. The South Dakota Farm Bureau backed the move following a vote of its convention delegates.

“We believe this merger will make government work better for farmers and ranchers and will strengthen the future of agriculture,” said Scott VanderWal, President of the South Dakota Farm Bureau, in a statement. “The agriculture industry is continually evolving, and thanks to Governor Noem’s leadership, South Dakota continues to be on the leading edge of that evolution. There is no better time than now to solidify agriculture’s role in protecting our environment and natural resources while ensuring our industry in South Dakota remains economically viable and growing.”

However, in a call with farmers and ag groups earlier this month , some people in agriculture expressed concern that future administrations might put the industry on the backburner in favor of environmental interests. South Dakota Farmers Union has opposed the move, saying agriculture needs its own dedicated department in case the policies of the two departments conflict.

"Agriculture is our state’s number one industry and economic driver. It is a complex industry facing unique challenges and opportunities. We believe our state’s agriculture industry deserves a department whose resources and expertise are solely devoted to it," said Farmers Union President Doug Sombke in a letter earlier this month.

South Dakota Farmers Union and Dakota Rural Action, which also opposes the merger, have pointed out that only two states have combined departments for ag and environmental regulatory functions: Alaska and Rhode Island. Those states have very small agriculture industries compared to South Dakota's.

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Likewise, the Sierra Club of South Dakota opposes the move.

"The South Dakota chapter of the Sierra Club is concerned that concern for the environment may be lost if this merger moves forward," says executive committee member Mark Winegar.

Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.
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