PIERRE, S.D. — South Dakota is poised to become the third state to have a state agency that oversees both agriculture and natural resources.

The South Dakota Senate on Monday, March 8, rejected an effort to stop Gov. Kristi Noem's plan to merge the state’s Department of Agriculture with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The 17-18 vote allows the plan to move forward as laid out in a January executive order from Noem. Alaska and Rhode Island both have agencies that oversee both agriculture and environmental concerns, though those states have far smaller agriculture economies than South Dakota.

The tight vote mirrors the split in agriculture groups' opinions of the plan. South Dakota Farm Bureau has supported the merger, while South Dakota Farmers Union came out against it.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks in a conference room of the statehouse in Pierre, S.D., on Thursday, Feb. 25. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks in a conference room of the statehouse in Pierre, S.D., on Thursday, Feb. 25. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)
Under Noem's 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.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

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, and then are enacted in 90 days unless a majority of members of either the state House or Senate disapprove of it.

Sen. Troy Heinert, D-Mission, sponsored Senate Resolution of Disapproval 901, aimed at stopping the merger. The resolution says agriculture is the state’s No. 1 industry and “deserves a state department whose resources and expertise are devoted to the promotion of the agriculture industry.” The Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on March 4 moved it to the full Senate on a 4-3 vote.

The move is expected to save the state $450,000 per year.

Heinert, on the Senate floor on March 8, acknowledged Noem has the authority to move cabinet positions and secretaries.

"It is within our rights to bring a resolution of disapproval, to say, no, we understand, but we don't think that's the best idea," he said. "We all know that agriculture is the No. 1 industry in our state, by far, $34 billion we heard in committee."

Sen. Troy Heinert, D-Mission, speaks on the floor of the South Dakota Senate on March 8, 2021. (South Dakota Legislature screenshot)
Sen. Troy Heinert, D-Mission, speaks on the floor of the South Dakota Senate on March 8, 2021. (South Dakota Legislature screenshot)
Heinert said ag deserves its own department, as does the area of environmental and natural resources protection. Combining the two doesn't do either any favors, he said, adding that making the move could have generations-long impacts on the state.

The debate over the potential merger did not break up along partisan lines or along urban-rural lines. Those opposed to the merger mentioned concerns like the new department not having time for small ag producers, the two former departments having missions that were not aligned with each other, and potential future regulatory concerns for agriculture depending on who is at the helm of the new agency.

However, those in favor of the merger stressed potential efficiencies.

Sen. Gary Cammack, R-Union Center, said the merger will create a "one-stop shop" for permitting and will make sure agriculture remains a priority in the state. He also pointed out the importance of cost savings for the state. Sen. Jean Hunhoff, R-Yankton, said the merger should help reduce silos between agencies so people can be more flexible.

Sen. Joshua Klumb, R-Mount Vernon, said he may be the only or one of the only full-time crop farmers in the South Dakota Legislature, and he feels like the merger will make it clear that agriculture and natural resources go hand in hand.

"I think the governor is very forward-thinking in this effort," he said.