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SD combines ag, environmental depts

South Dakota’s Governor Kristi Noem announced recently that she is in the process of combining two agencies – the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources into one department.

While each agency was previously overseen by its own secretary, one individual, Hunter Roberts, the current secretary of the South Dakota DENR, has now been asked to lead the new dual-purpose agency.

Roberts said that he doesn’t anticipate the new merger will result in any layoffs, but that it will still create some budget savings by allowing the state to get rid of some positions within both agencies that are currently vacant.

Other costs savings will come in the form of employees with expertise in grant writing and technical knowledge being able to help in both agencies, as well as the elimination of one secretary’s salary.

Roberts said he is busy “putting together teams to capture efficiencies.”

The merger is a good thing for South Dakota, said Roberts, who believes it will protect resources for today and tomorrow, and streamline certain tasks.

“I don’t think a robust ag department and a healthy environment are mutually exclusive,” said Roberts. “We have family farms, many of which have been here for generations. This longevity isn’t the result of abuse, it’s the result of responsible farming and ranching.”

Roberts doesn’t worry about a future anti-agriculture governor or state political climate where ag producers would lose their voices.

“South Dakota governors have a long history of supporting ag. I don’t see that changing,” he said. “No governor can ignore the impact ag has on this state, or marginalize its impacts.”

A single agency can oversee some of the regulatory enforcement that falls within the realm of both agriculture and natural resources, such as manure management and water discharge from dairies, swine facilities, feedlots and other concentrated livestock operations, said Roberts.

Animal Industry Board member and White River area rancher Eric Iversen has some questions over the merging of the two departments but of bigger concern to him was the transfer of the ag development team from the Department of Agriculture to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development around a year ago.

Roberts said that initial move was to capture efficiencies, and that it opened the door for the current merger.

On the regulatory side, Iversen can see some overlap between the two agencies, so the doubling up could make sense as far as feedlot compliance for permitting, and things like that, said Iversen, who worked within the South Dakota Department of Agriculture as a livestock development specialist about 13 years ago. But he also has some skepticism.

“How can one person wear both hats? At times they will have to take a side,” said Iversen referencing potential conflicts for livestock regulatory and permitting issues. The right person for the job of agency secretary is someone with a vision of hope for a sustainable and profitable industry, and one who is capable of standing up for South Dakota agriculture against in-state and out-of-state adversaries, said Iversen.

But as for initiating and developing programs and policies to help increase profit for South Dakota’s livestock and crop producers, Iversen said the opportunities are endless, and that the state ought to have someone with an entrepreneurial spirit dedicated specifically to this concept.

“The proof will be in the pudding, it will depend, administration to administration, who the governor chooses,” he said.

“Yes, ag is the number one industry in South Dakota, but we’re fighting for the survival of our farms and ranches, for the opportunity to pass them on to our kids, and we’re trying to decide if we even want to burden our children with the challenges and frustrations. What is the ag department, or this new merged department, doing for the guy busting his back, keeping his rural community thriving, buying tires, fuel, gas, and spending at least $50 to $60 per calf on property taxes?” he asks.

Offering the same or similar tax breaks to established farms and ranches that are provided to new ag businesses would be a good start, he said.

“Every time one of these ranches is sold to a wealthy out-of-state investor, it hurts the local economy, the local community, and the state economy. Ranchers don’t sell out because they want to, they sell out because they have to. We as a state need to minimize those instances of ‘have to sell,’ and the state ag department ought to be focusing significant resources on helping return profit to the production sector.”

Iversen said that while the current Governor clearly backs agriculture, future state leaders might not be so supportive of farmers and ranchers.

“It all comes down to who your governor is, and whether we can trust him or her. The governor is in charge of hiring the secretaries, appointing people to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. As for combining the two agencies, we can trust that Governor Noem will appoint an ag-friendly secretary, but what happens when she isn’t there?” asks Iversen.

Roberts is confident this won’t happen.

“South Dakota governors have a long history of supporting agriculture. I don’t see that changing. Agriculture is our biggest industry,” he said.

From here on out, Lt. Governor Larry Rhoden, who has served as the acting Secretary of Agriculture since May, will spend more time reaching out to agricultural groups and representing South Dakota agriculture, said Roberts.

“He will be a voice for the department and for the governor’s office,” said Roberts.

“It’s a good one-two punch. I’m available to producers and I like talking about helping them and talking about ways to grow our industry,” Roberts added.

Roberts said that the new, combined agency will advocate for a fair playing field for producers, adding that the state ag department supports the current federal Department of Justice investigation into alleged meatpacker price fixing.

As to whether or not someone will be dedicated to agricultural outreach when Lt. Governor Larry Rhoden is out of office, Roberts said “we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

Roberts, who grew up in Lyman County and now raises cattle and crops in Stanley County, explained that the Governor plans to implement an executive order when legislative session starts, which means the merger would be officially completed 90 days afterward, or around the first part of April, 2021.


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