North Dakota's biggest farm group is considering a citizen initiative to overturn the Legislature's decision to loosen the state's Depression-era ban against corporate farming, a move the state's top agriculture official believes would lead to a legal challenge and put the entire law at risk of being ruled unconstitutional in the courts.
"It could be throwing the baby out with the bath water," Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said.
Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, said the group has planned a rally next week in Bismarck to show its opposition to legislation signed Friday by Gov. Jack Dalrymple that exempts pork and dairy operations from the state's anti-corporate farming law.
The so-called ham-and-cheese bill is intended to revitalize dairy and swine farms after years of decline, supporters said. Opponents believe the ban blocks unfair competition, and changing it even slightly will be an invitation for big, out-of-state corporations to set up operations in North Dakota.
Dalrymple said in a statement that the legislation is not a "threat to the farm sector as we know it."
Watne said his group of about 40,000 members believe otherwise and will decide next week whether to begin a petition drive to refer the legislation to voters.
"We haven't firmly made a decision but the early observations are we're going to do it," Watne said. "We're getting tons of calls."
The group would need to collect 13,452 signatures to force a vote.
North Dakota's anti-corporate farming law dates to 1932, when it was put on the ballot as an initiated measure and approved by voters. The law does allow farming by family-held corporations, which are limited to 15 shareholders who must be related by blood or marriage.
Legislation passed last week would allow non-family farm corporations to own or lease agriculture land, as long as the operations don't take up more than 640 acres of land, or a square mile. Facilities would have to have at least 500 hogs or 50 dairy cows.
Goehring supported the legislation to relax the corporate farming ban, saying exemptions would revive the agriculture industry and help fuel other ag business, such as feed and fertilizer.
Eight other states have laws restricting corporate farming, though all allow exemptions for some livestock operations.
Goehring is opposed to scrubbing North Dakota's ban altogether but said the willingness by the Legislature to loosen the 83-year-old law could help fend off legal challenges that have happened in other farm states that have not fared well in the courts in recent years.
In South Dakota, for example, voters approved a corporate farming ban in 1998, but it was struck down by a federal judge as unconstitutional because it interfered with interstate commerce. In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the decision.
Goehring said if the North Dakota Legislature's recent action to loosen the law comes before voters, a lawsuit is likely by supporters of the exemptions, and the entire ban could meet the same fate as South Dakota's.
Watne, the Farmers Union president, doesn't buy that argument. He said if North Dakota's anti-corporate farming law was unconstitutional, "it would have been thrown out already."