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What South Dakota Agriculture Leaders Think About A Merger of Departments

During the first five days of this Legislative Session, Governor Noem will issue an Executive Order merging the Department of Agriculture with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.


Agriculture is South Dakota’s number one industry. And this Legislative Session, Governor Kristi Noem plans to issue an Executive Order to merge the Department of Agriculture with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. This makes South Dakota the third state in the nation without a designated Department of Agriculture.

To understand what our state’s farmers and ranchers think of this change, I reached out to leaders within the industry.

“Myself and my family have a cattle ranch and we also have a farm and ranch supply store at Union Center.”

“I’m an ag business owner, farmer rancher from Parade, South Dakota.”

“I farm on the land that my great-grandfather founded back in the early 1900s and my sons are operating it today.”

”We have a family farm operation by Volga South Dakota where we feed cattle and raise corn and soybeans.

That’s Senate Majority Leader Gary Cammack; House Representative Oren Lesmeister; South Dakota Farmers Union President Doug Sombke and Farm Bureau President Scott VanderWal.

Based on their understanding of what this merger will look like, as well as feedback from their constituents and members, some of these leaders support the merger while others oppose it.

What most do agree on is the fact that the Governor’s decision came as a surprise.

“I was kind of taken aback that we had not heard a single word about this merger, coming forward from the Governor’s office or anything. There was no talk about it. There was no reach out and see what people thought about it,” said Oren Lesmeister. “Before we take our state’s number one industry department and merge it with another without any of the ag groups having any input at all, asking anybody at all, it just seemed like it would have been a lot better and easier hill to climb than having to explain yourself after the fact.”

That’s Representative Oren Lesmeister. Many of those he serves in Corson, Dewey and Ziebach are farmers and ranchers. He says 75 percent of those he hears from are against the merger.

While Farm Bureau policy supports the merger because 70 percent of the organization’s farmer/rancher delegates voted in favor of it at the 2020 State Convention in November, the organization’s president, Scott VanderWal says because they had not heard anything about the merger until after it was announced, he and his members proceeded with caution.

“We hadn’t heard it was coming, and so we reserved judgement for quite some time. We had some calls from folks that said, “Now, we’re gonna oppose this right?” and we said, “no, we’re gonna take our time and be deliberative about it and find out what all the aspects of details are about it and maybe see if any other states around have done it around us and then make a decision on an informed basis going forward. And that’s what we did,” VanderWal said.

Because three of the four producers interviewed were not aware of the Governor’s decision to merge the departments until the announcement, I asked Hunter Roberts, Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Interim Secretary of the Department of Agriculture about why more stakeholders were not part of the decision process. Roberts says it was all about timing.

“Frankly, I’m not the one that made the decision. So, I guess what my comment would be is the reason the decision was made is that there was some discussions for a month or so about that potentially happening, then the Governor’s Office and myself and the Lieutenant Governor and the Bureau of Finance and Management looked at what he timeline was on budget proposals and decided that if we were gonna do it this year, we needed to do it relatively quickly or else we were just running out of time,” Roberts said.

After the decision, Roberts, along with the Lieutenant Governor, Larry Rhoden did reach out to agriculture leaders and the organizations they serve.

Scott VanderWal says after Farm Bureau members learned that the merger would streamline processes and save taxpayer dollars, they voted to support the merger.

“To farmers and ranchers that deal with both DENR and Department of Ag on a regulatory basis, that maybe we can make our lives a little bit easier by combining some of those trips and working with fewer people and fewer visits,” VanderWal said.

The visits VanderWal references are inspections made annually to dairies and large, concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. Today, these large farms, many of which are still owned and operated by South Dakota families, are inspected annually by both the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The Department of Ag staff inspect livestock and facilities to ensure animal health and milk quality. While Department of Environment and Natural Resources staff inspect farms’ facility design and manure management plans to ensure they do not have a negative impact on our state’s soil, air or water.

Although staff from both departments visit the same farms, it is for different purposes. And it’s the value District 28-A Representative Oren Lesmeister sees in these two unique purposes, that is among the reasons he is opposed to the merger.

“There is some redundancy there, but there is a checks and balances’ reason for it. In 73, when in 1973 when it was reorganized and had a Department of Ag and a Department of Natural Resources, one of the reasons was it was too much of a burdensome on one department to try to handle both sides of the entity. I still think today, that would still be an issue. Especially with limited staff. So, there’s a lot of red flags. A lot of concerns to understand. Maybe trying to get rid of some redundancy, but at the end of the day, I still think we need to do what’s right for our state and not just for a budgetary cut,” Lesmeister said.

In addition to maintaining strong checks and balances, Doug Sombke President of South Dakota Farmers Union says Farmers Union members oppose the merger because they believe agriculture deserves a dedicated state department due to its economic impact.

“Seriously? From an industry that provides $30 billion dollars to the economic engine the state, you’re worried about saving $400,000,” Sombke asked.

Sombke points to Alaska and Rhode Island as two other states that have merged Departments of Agriculture and Environment and Natural Resources. And according to 2019 U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service data their agriculture industries are much smaller.

In 2019, cash receipts for all agriculture commodities in Alaska amounted to $38.3 million dollars, while Rhode Island’s cash receipts added up to $64.4 million dollars. South Dakota’s cash receipts were $8.9 billion dollars.

Cash receipts do not provide a complete picture of the economic impact agriculture has on South Dakota’s overall economy says Erik Gerlach, the State Statistician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Ag Statistics Service.

“$8.95 billion dollars, now that’s just a raw number, when we think about economic impact, depending on how you measure it, which research tools you’re using, those dollars expand as they track through the economy. So, there could be multipliers of 1.2 or higher and how it has a total impact in terms of employment and other industries that rely on agriculture within the state,” Gerlach says.

According to the 2019 South Dakota Agriculture Economic Contribution Study, published by South Dakota Department of Agriculture, agriculture generates $32.5 billion in annual economic activity and employs more than 132,000 South Dakotans. The impact agriculture has on South Dakota’s farm and ranch families and rural communities is not lost on farmer and rancher-leaders.

Senate Majority Leader, Gary Cammack.

“Everything that I’ve seen doesn’t call for any elimination of other programs or any of the folks that are serving in a field situation or dealing with the permitting and that sort of thing, so the amount of focus that is being put on agriculture on the environment should remain the same,” Cammack said.

Although a vote is not necessary to merge the two departments, the Legislature can, through resolution, oppose the merger. If the legislature does not oppose the merger, the Governor’s Executive Order takes effect 90-days after it is issued. The new department would be called the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Hunter Roberts, who together with is family owns and operates a farm and ranch southeast of Ft. Pierre would serve as its first Secretary.