With a failed ballot measure that sought changes to the state's decades-old corporate farming law in the rear-view mirror, a potentially lengthy federal court battle over its legality has arisen.
In June, the North Dakota Farm Bureau filed a lawsuit in federal court in Bismarck against the law that went into effect in 1932. The attorney general's office will be filing its response by the end of this month to what is being called a complex case, the Bismarck Tribune reported.
"We just think that farmers and ranchers are discriminated against, and that it's unconstitutional," said Farm Bureau President Daryl Lies.
The most recent North Dakota fight over corporate farming began with Senate Bill 2351, which passed last session after a lengthy debate in which the Farm Bureau did not participate. The measure provided exemptions to allow corporate dairy and swine operations of at least 50 cows or 500 swine on a farm of up to 640 acres.
In the June 14 election, more than 75 percent of the state's voters rejected the changes outlined in Measure 1. The Farm Bureau's lawsuit was filed shortly before the election.
"I wasn't necessarily surprised," Lies said of the vote.
Opposition to Measure 1 had more than $810,000 in funding, a large majority of which came from North Dakota Farmers Union. A committee in support of the measure raised just under $6,000.
Farmers Union officials will be watching the lawsuit closely.
"Right now, North Dakota Farmers Union is weighing its options with the pending corporate farming lawsuit. We will continue to do what we do best: represent family farmers, who have overwhelmingly said no to corporate farming in North Dakota," member advocacy director Kayla Pulvermacher said in a public statement.
Lies said the state's farmers should have the same opportunities as other businesses in the state to develop a corporate structure.
"We chose to go down this path long before the session," he said, adding the issue has been debated off and on in the state for decades and it's time to have it settled in court.
"We're wanting to ask the question. It's never been asked in federal court," Lies said.
North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said his office asked for and received a 30-day extension for filing its response to the lawsuit; the deadline now is July 30.
"We're just in the process of drafting our response. It's a fairly complicated case," said Stenehjem, who expects a decision to be issued within several months, followed by an appeal from whichever side loses.
Lies declined to estimate the cost of pursuing the lawsuit, saying it will depend on the attorney general's response and how thorough the Farm Bureau's response will be as the case proceeds.
"It's all kind of a waiting game. We're hoping to have something within an 18-month time frame, give or take," Lies said. "We're cautiously optimistic because of the precedents set by South Dakota and Nebraska."
Those states' corporate farming laws have been overturned in recent years.
Stenehjem said North Dakota's corporate farming law is different from those in other states, and it will "be vigorously defended" in court.
"It's a significant case; there's no question about it," he said.
The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture numbers dairy cattle at about 16,000 and hogs at about 138,000 in North Dakota in 2015.
In 2000, the state had about 50,000 dairy cattle at about 350 dairy operations. Today, the number of operations is around 90.
By comparison, South Dakota had 110,000 dairy cattle and 1.36 million hogs, while Minnesota had 460,000 dairy cattle and 8 million hogs.
Lies said a win in court won't be a silver bullet, but he would expect some immediate and initial steps toward change.
Among them would be the ability for corporate family farms to expand by allowing second cousins to come into the fold; this isn't allowed under current law.
Other changes could include developing and executing more corporate-type business plans that farmers and ranchers currently don't have access to. He said it also could enable more young farmers to enter the livestock industry.
"It's not going to happen overnight. Businesses take time," Lies said.