In an apparent shifting of gears on the eve of the start of the 2020 legislative session, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem surprisingly laid out a road map last week for industrial hemp to become a legal crop in the state.

After successfully thwarting what appeared to be an overwhelmingly popular effort (at least among legislators) to embrace industrial hemp last winter — which left South Dakota as just one of three states in the country that had yet to legalize hemp production — Noem seemed determined to put down more roadblocks for the crop for the upcoming session. She announced this past fall that she would oppose any hemp legislation that reached her desk, even as a legislative study group on hemp was in the process of formulating a proposal for lawmakers to consider this winter.

But last Thursday, the governor suddenly relented. She announced that, even though she still doesn’t personally support the legalization of hemp production, she would not veto it as long as four so-called “guardrails” are met with the legislation. The provisions include 1) reliable law enforcement standards; 2) “responsible” regulations in terms of licensing, reporting and inspections; 3) a plan for safe transportation; and 4) an adequate funding plan, meaning the state would have to come up with a plan to fund production, with a cost estimated by the governor to be $1.9 million for startup and another $1.6 million for operation.

One is still compelled to qualify this as an “apparent” change in approach. You never know what other hurdles might be thrown into this process, especially after last winter when the hemp package appeared to have solid majorities backing it in both the House and Senate, and still failed.

Despite her personal opposition, it does appear the governor is acquiescing to the inevitable. As Noem herself admitted, “things have changed.”

There is, for starters, the aforementioned fact that 47 of the 50 states have embraced production, including all of South Dakota’s neighbors. In a state where agriculture is the No. 1 economic driver, that stark fact figured to eventually become a hindrance.

Also, South Dakota has been forced to accept the reality that industrial hemp produced in states that have legalized it can be transported across state lines.

And tribes are also going through the process of getting their hemp production requests approved. Recently, the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe had its federal request approved, and two other South Dakota tribes, including the Yankton Sioux Tribe, have their requests pending.

Meanwhile, South Dakota lawmakers have a new proposal ready to go on industrial hemp. According to House Majority Leader Lee Qualm, R-Platte, the new proposal meets most of the requirements spelled out by the governor.

The best guess at this moment may be that funding could be the most difficult issue in this process, especially given the state’s tight budgeting, but we’ll see what transpires.

Noem’s shift on this issue could potentially open new doors for crop producers in this state, especially at a time when the farm economy is under duress. While this certainly wouldn’t be a cure-all, it could at least provide another planting option and some greater crop diversification.

Overall, it sets a promising tone for this issue as the 2020 session begins.


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