North Dakota's hog and dairy industries are hoping voters will bless state lawmakers' decision to allow non-family corporations to own operations, but it could be a tough sell in a state that has safeguarded its family farming heritage for nearly a century.
Up for vote in the June 14 election is whether to uphold the 2015 Legislature's move to loosen North Dakota's corporate farming ban, which has tried to keep crop and pasture in the hands of small-operation farmers and away from large out-of-state businesses that some believe might have little regard for the land.
"Family farming agriculture has delivered in this state forever," said Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, which is leading the fight against the exemptions. "This would be a senseless change."
Supporters of the change point out that the ban has not stemmed a steady loss of family farms, especially for hogs and dairy cattle. Those two industries have declined precipitously in the state while crop farming has flourished — North Dakota is first or second in the nation in the production of 17 types of crops, from wheat to honey, and is third in acres of cropland.
"We get this portrayal (from opponents) of a boogeyman lurking in the shadows," said Daryl Lies, a lifelong hog farmer and president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau, which would like the corporate farming change to apply to all agricultural sectors.
The main debate is whether exemptions would give small family owned farms more opportunity to remain economically viable or run out the small operations. The latter is a concern for many because the bill, passed with mostly Republican support, would allow corporations to own or lease up to a square mile of agricultural land to sustain hundreds of pigs or cows — often called concentrated animal feeding operations — that many see as an environmental threat.
Only nine states have restrictions on corporate farming, and most allow exemptions for some livestock operations. But protecting family farms has always been important in North Dakota, where nearly two-thirds of farms have less than $100,000 in annual sales. The anti-corporate farming law has been in effect since 1932 and the state in 2012 became the first in the nation to enshrine the right to farm in the state constitution, mainly meant to ensure out-of-state groups — including animal rights organizations — don't keep family farmers from making a living.
Supporters of blocking the corporate farming exemptions seem to have an upper hand. The latest campaign disclosure filings show they've raised more than $1.2 million, while a coalition aimed at keeping the exemptions reported raising less than $6,000.
Those in favor of the exemptions see it as a way to save two industries, as the number of hogs and the amount of milk produced in North Dakota are less than one-third of what they were half a century ago, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.
Allowing corporate dairy farming would give farmers more access to capital and options when it comes to expanding operations, said Mandan dairyman Kenton Holle, a member of the Milk Producers Association of North Dakota. The attitude that "this kind of structure is going to kill the family farm — now you're just putting emotion into it, putting ideas into consumers' heads that aren't real," he said.
Other legal options for expansions exist, such as limited liability partnerships, Lies said, but "those types of structures do not provide the same security ... as a corporation does."
But many North Dakota residents are wary of opening the barn door to corporations that might be less environmentally responsible — and tougher to be held accountable, said House Minority Leader Kenton Onstad, D-Parshall, a vocal opponent of relaxing the law. The bill, however, requires corporations to set up a farming operation as a safeguard against big companies buying up land just to be held as an asset.
North Dakota State University livestock economist Tim Petry did not offer an opinion on the ballot measure but said he believes corporate farming and family farming can co-exist under the right rules. Gov. Jack Dalrymple has said the Legislature's action is "not a threat to the farm sector."
Republican Sen. Joe Miller, who farms crops near Park River and was a main sponsor of the legislative bill, said the dairy and hog industries in North Dakota are at the point where "all we can do is go up."
"I think it's really important that we look beyond the idea of the American Gothic — everybody has a couple dairy cows and couple beef cows, and they have some chickens and they farm 40 acres," he said. "We're well beyond that point, and we have been for years.
"We need to accept this as a reality of agriculture now. Farmers are businessmen."