After over 12 hours of debate, the Agriculture Committee passed the Farm Bill in the early hours on July 12 with a bipartisan vote of 35-11. What came out isn't exactly what I would have written, but it represents the kind of good government policy South Dakotans expect and deserve. This bill saves taxpayers $35 billion by making farm and nutrition programs more accountable. Finding ways to reduce government spending is a must in the face of a $15.8 trillion debt, and I'm proud that we've made the reductions in a way that still protects the farm and food safety net many South Dakotans rely on.
As a lifelong farmer and rancher, being able to contribute to this Farm Bill was important. I spent months talking to South Dakota farmers and producers, and based on those discussions was able to successfully get provisions included that directly benefit our state. I fought to extend the livestock disaster programs our ranchers rely on, promote conservation and taxpayer savings with the Protect our Prairies Act and give South Dakota a chance to get ahead of the pine beetle with the National Forest Emergency Response Act. All three of these provisions are included in the committee-passed version in some form.
During debate in committee, I offered several amendments to strengthen the Farm Bill. One increased the number of acres that can be used to implement pine beetle mitigation measures from 1,000 to 10,000 acres. The amendment passed with Republican and Democrat support. This amendment is critically important because it would give us the tools to get ahead of the pine beetle. I also successfully inserted an amendment to permanently establish an Office of Tribal Relations within the United States Department of Agriculture to ensure that the Secretary is advised on policy affecting Indian country.
Making the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) do more homework before closing Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices was also something I supported in Committee. Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-IA) offered an amendment to require USDA to conduct a workload assessment before any FSA county office closes in the future. This amendment, which passed with bipartisan support, would build on legislation I introduced back in March to prevent FSA office closures if area producers had to drive more than 20 miles to reach another office. The role of these county offices is critically important to ensuring our producers have access to and assistance with USDA programs.
South Dakota's agricultural industry has been strong in recent years, but recently released drought information shows that our state could face a difficult time in the weeks and months ahead unless we start getting some rain. Seventy-seven percent of South Dakota is now in moderate drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. That's why I sent a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack requesting that he open up Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres for haying and grazing.
Agriculture is South Dakota's number one industry and I will keep fighting at every turn for our farmers and ranchers. I appreciate all of the feedback that I received from South Dakotans on the Farm Bill, and encourage folks to keep on reaching out and sharing their opinions as we move forward.
Rep. Kristi Noem is South Dakota's lone U.S. Representative, elected in November 2010. She serves on the Agriculture, Education and Workforce and Natural Resources Committees.