Agriculture is the lifeblood of South Dakota's economy.

Our industry employs more than 120,000 people across the state, who together contribute more than $21 billion to our state's economy. Yet, family farming operations can be a tough and volatile business. We're exposed to swings in both commodity prices and input costs, and a significant shift in any of these factors can easily mean the difference between a profitable year and an unprofitable one.

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Over the decades, as mules and horses gave way to combines and crop dusters, many of us rely on an airplane to carry out crop protection, to survey our land, to carry tools and equipment, among many other uses. In fact, across our state, farms and businesses rely on these aircraft every day to reach far-off markets, transport tools and employees, and to reach multiple locations in one day.

All told, aviation accounts for $791 million, and many of South Dakota's 65 general use airports rely exclusively or increasingly on general aviation, including cities and towns like Pierre and Sioux Falls, which have seen reduced commercial service in recent years.

The truth is that across this country, general aviation is a literal lifeline to small and mid-sized towns, protecting our way of life, our livelihoods and our businesses. Yet many outside of our areas of the country still do not understand the critical importance of these aircraft and airports. For example, some inside "the beltway" have proposed a new privatized air traffic control system based on a user fee tax on our businesses and farms that depend on these aircraft.

This would be a death blow to not only many small businesses and farms that are already still struggling to recover from the economic downturn, but for the many medical and service providers that depend on these aircraft to deliver critical services to our communities across South Dakota and across the country.

Whether it's delivery of health care to underserved communities, helping veterans to reunite with their families or get the health care they need, law enforcement, firefighting or disaster relief, these aircraft help to connect communities in need.

Currently, we pay through a fuel tax, which is simple, efficient and easy-to-use. And, currently, Congress has the final say in ensuring that air service to and from communities of all sizes is protected in our air transportation system. This would not be the case in a privatized air traffic control system.

Rural America and our family farms are a backbone to our local and national economy. Let's keep it that way by protecting general aviation and access to airports and communities of all sizes.