Kristi Noem’s agricultural credentials have helped her win three U.S. House elections, but this year her opponent is trying to turn that issue against her.

Paula Hawks, the Democratic challenger to the Republican incumbent, spoke to the Journal this week during a Black Hills campaign swing that included town hall meetings in Spearfish, Custer and Rapid City. Hawks, a Flandreau native now living in Hartford, said agricultural issues will be a focus of her campaign, and she accused Noem of being unwilling to debate at Dakotafest, the farm-and-ranch trade show held annually in August near Mitchell.

Dakotafest’s marketing director, Samantha Castro, did not respond to Journal interview requests this week. But she recently told The Mitchell Daily Republic that instead of debates, which have been highlights of past shows, the schedule this year includes a panel discussion involving South Dakota’s three members of Congress, two of whom are up for re-election Nov. 8.

That leaves out Hawks, as well as her fellow Democrat Jay Williams, who is running against Republican Sen. John Thune.

Hawks is using the snub as a jumping-off point to launch critiques of Noem’s record on ag issues, including Noem’s surrendering last year of her post on the House Agriculture Committee in favor of an appointment to the House Ways and Means Committee.

Hawks accused Noem of “lobbying herself off of the Ag Committee to get into a very powerful Washington committee” and said a fear of fallout from that committee switch could be motivating Noem to avoid a Dakotafest debate.

“The only feasible excuse that I can see is that Kristi doesn’t want to have to answer to why she left the Ag Committee in a state that relies almost entirely on its agricultural industry, in front of a crowd of ag producers and agricultural industry leaders,” Hawks said.

Noem campaign spokesman Justin Brasell fielded the Journal’s request for a response from Noem. Brasell said Noem is not dodging a debate at Dakotafest; rather, he said, she was merely offered a spot on a panel and accepted it. To his knowledge, Brasell said, no debate was proposed at Dakotafest, and Noem has not yet fielded any formal debate invitations.

Brasell also rejected Hawks’ characterization of Noem’s committee switch. Brasell said Noem is the first South Dakotan to serve on the House Ways and Means Committee, which is described as the chief tax-writing committee in the House. Her seat there puts her in a better position to impact congressional action on taxes, trade, health care and other issues of concern to farmers, ranchers and other South Dakotans, Brasell said.

Accepting the appointment to the Ways and Means Committee meant relinquishing other committee posts, because caucus rules dictate that members of Ways and Means cannot serve on other committees.

“If she could serve on Ways and Means and Ag, she would do that, but the rules prohibit it,” Brasell said.

Both candidates have agricultural backgrounds, having been raised on family farms in eastern South Dakota. Hawks, now a state legislator and former teacher, is deploying several other agricultural lines of attack in her campaign, including allegations that Noem has not been an effective advocate for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) or country-of-origin labeling (COOL).

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CRP enables landowners to put marginal agricultural land under vegetative cover and get paid by the government, thereby protecting the environment and creating habitat for wildlife. It's a valuable program not only for farmers, but also for South Dakota's pheasant-hunting industry, which needs CRP acres for pheasant habitat.

During the annual sign-up period last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture accepted only 101 South Dakota acres into the program despite receiving 727 applications from the state totaling 42,000 acres.

Hawks said that’s further evidence, after Noem’s departure from the Ag Committee, of Noem’s neglect of South Dakota priorities. Noem, meanwhile, has joined South Dakota’s other two congressional delegates in urging the U.S. agriculture secretary to re-evaluate the CRP selection process.

On the topic of COOL, Hawks noted that Noem was not able to save the formerly mandatory labeling program for beef and pork from a congressional repeal last year. Noem, who voted to retain COOL, told the Journal in February that she had not given up on the program.

“It’s by no means dead,” she said at the time. “We’re still looking at potential solutions that we can find that won’t do damage to the markets or take money out of the ranchers’ pockets.”

Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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Enterprise Reporter

Enterprise reporter for the Rapid City Journal.