Earlier this month, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem proposed to merge the state’s Department of Agriculture (SDDA) with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) into a single agency. Few details were provided and it’s left a lot of questions among both agricultural and environmental interests.

One of the common questions we’ve encountered: Why?

According to South Dakota News Watch, this would be the only state in the Great Plains to have these two agencies combined as one entity.

And yes, it does stir a lot of questions.

“The planned merger has the potential to profoundly reshape the complex relationship between agriculture, the environment, and the people charged with promoting and regulating the industry,” the News Watch story said.

The first thing that leaps to mind is the fact that DENR generally provides oversight to the SDDA on numerous issues, including, notably, concentrated animal feedlot operations (CAFOs). Given the governor’s desire to see the expansion of CAFO development in the state, there may be legitimate concerns how the environmental elements of such expansion could be independently monitored on inter-agency terms.

Meanwhile, ag producers are expressing concerns that, if a future governor comes in with a different approach on issues such as CAFOs (think of this in terms of the Yankton County Commission’s periodic changeovers and shifts in CAFO philosophies), this merger may not allow for what News Watch referred to as agricultural “push back” on equal terms.

“Historically, there have been some issues that come up where the Department of Ag and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources have not met on the same side,” Scott VanderWal of the South Dakota Farm Bureau Federation said. “Most of the concern would be that the ag department would turn more toward regulation, and maybe have a lack of understanding of what (farming) operations need.”

Added Kelly Kistner of the Izaak Walton League, “You can support a clean environment, healthy natural resources and agriculture, but there will be times and some issues where it will be very difficult to support both.”

Also, environmental concerns in this state are not limited to the agricultural sector. The Black Hills, for instance, present their own unique issues. On the other side of the state, Sioux Falls has environmental issues that have little to do with agriculture. Will these be served as efficiently or given the same amount of attention with a combined SDDA/DENR agency.

Also, both fields of interest — agriculture and the environment — are vast, complex issues in this state. Frankly, they would both seem to warrant their own divisions and their own autonomy.

Yes, there could be budgetary savings. The DENR currently has about 180 full-time employees and is budgeted at $25.9 million. The SDDA has about 225 full-time employees and is budgeted at about $47.5 million. Some streamlining figures to be likely, but again, it’s uncertain.

Much more information is needed about what this proposal would look like, but as Jay Gilbertson of the East Dakota Water Management District said, “It’s hard for me to imagine what the advantage of this merger is.”

At this point, we have to agree.


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