Noem orders agriculture, natural resource department merger

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem on Tuesday issued an executive order to merge two departments overseeing the state's agriculture industry and natural resources.

The Republican governor's order created the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources that she billed as a “one-stop” shop for farmers and ranchers that would save the state about $450,000 by eliminating five positions. While the influential South Dakota Farm Bureau praised the move, other farmers' groups focused on conservation opposed the merger, saying it impacted the protection of resources including water, oil and soil.

Hunter Roberts, the current Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, will head the new department.

“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.

Noem's move is a continuation of efforts she calls a “streamlining” of the government's oversight of the agriculture industry. She announced the merger in August, a move which caught farmers unaware. As the state's farm groups digested the repercussions of the merger, they split in supporting the idea.

“We think there are efficiencies to be gained,” said Scott VanderWal, the Farm Bureau president.

He said the merger would help farmers from getting caught between two departments.

But other groups, including the South Dakota Farmers Union and Dakota Rural Action, a conservation group, came out in opposition.

“Being a jack of all trades is not always a good answer when it comes to protecting human health and natural resources,” said Doug Sombke, the president of the Farmers Union.

He said Roberts, the current Secretary, would do well leading the department, but pointed out that the job of leading a department that both oversees the state's largest industry and regulates its natural resources was a mammoth task.

Rick Bell, a member of Dakota Rural Action, worried that the “checks and balances” created by having separate departments was being eliminated. With agriculture and environmental inspectors housed in one department, he also saw the potential for increasing workloads.

Dakota Rural Action is pressing lawmakers to sponsor a resolution to block the merger, but to pass it would require a significant number of Republicans, who hold super-majorities in both chambers, to defy the governor.