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Proposed hog farm ignites corporate farming debate, Issue headed for June primary ballot test

FARGO -- The 9,000-hog farm planned in rural Cass County is allowed under current laws, but advocates contend large livestock operations will mushroom unless voters reject newly passed exemptions in a law restricting corporate farming.

Pipestone Holdings' Rolling Green Family Farms seeks approval for a 9,065-sow facility near Buffalo, which is  43 miles west of Fargo. The farm would include barns and concrete waste pits.

More than 100 residents packed a community meeting last week to voice concerns that a large pig farm would bring environmental problems, including those involving air and water quality. A permit application is pending before the North Dakota Department of Health, which has not yet decided whether to hold a public meeting but is accepting written comments.

Jeri Lynn Bakken, a member of the Dakota Resource Council who farms and ranches in Adams County, said big livestock operations of the kind planned near Buffalo will proliferate if the state's recent loosening of its ban on corporate farming stands.

"We're going to see bigger operations and more of this kind of thing happening," she said. "People who think this can't happen in their area need to keep their eyes open."

North Dakota lags significantly behind neighboring states in livestock production. The state Legislature last year passed exemptions in the state's restrictive corporate farming law to promote dairy and swine production.

The law is being challenged and voters will decide in the June 14 primary whether to uphold or reject the changes.

Before the exemptions were granted, North Dakota was the only one of nine states with noncorporate farming laws with no exemptions, a legal constraint that proponents of the law argued was hampering livestock agriculture.

The North Dakota Farmers Union is one of the groups pushing to overturn the law at the ballot box.

Mark Watne, the group's president, said current state law allows significant livestock operations -- and cites the application for the sow farm near Buffalo as an example.

"At North Dakota Farmers Union, we're not opposed to operations coming in, but we do hope that they follow the law of the land," he said. "If it qualifies" -- and meets environmental and zoning standards -- "then it should be allowed to happen."

North Dakota already allows for farming entities including limited liability partnerships -- which is how Rolling Green Family Farms is organized -- and family farm corporations, Watne said.

"Farming partnerships have been allowed in North Dakota for a long time," he added. "There's no real reason to change the laws."

North Dakota Farmers Union opposes exemptions to allow corporate farms because it opens the door to nonresident owners, such as hedge funds, pension funds and other large corporations, Watne said.

"That does not serve the interest of the state of North Dakota," he said. "It's about asset ownership."

Bakken agrees the state doesn't need to loosen its restrictive corporate farming law to grow animal agriculture in North Dakota.

"We believe more smaller operations are better economically for a state and community than a very few large operations," she said.

North Dakota has 77 active large concentrated animal feeding operations, according to figures from the state Department of Health, including two active large beef operations in Cass County.

Statewide, 54 involve beef cattle, 13 raise swine, seven dairy and three turkeys.

Figures compiled by the North Dakota Department of Agriculture, which supported the exemptions for swine and dairy operations, show that the state lags significantly behind neighboring states in livestock operations of all kinds.

North Dakota had 16,000 dairy cows as of 2014, the most recent figures available, compared to 97,000 in South Dakota and 460,000 in Minnesota. North Dakota had 44,000 cattle on feed last year, far short of the 385,000 in South Dakota and in Minnesota.

Similarly, the 138,000 head of swine last year in North Dakota were far short of the 1.3 million in South Dakota and 7.9 million in MInnesota, according to the tally by the North Dakota Department of Agriculture.

"It's absolutely amazing how we're trending down in all aspects of animal agriculture and other states are trending up," said Tom Bodine, deputy agriculture commissioner. "That bill" -- to allow the exemptions for dairy and swine -- "was to make a competitive playing field with all the surrounding states," he said.

Also, developing a bigger livestock industry would create a better market for feed grains in the state, Bodine said

"Really, this was producer-driven by the industry," he said, referring to the push for the corporate farming ban exemptions now headed for the June ballot.

The situation is especially dire for the North Dakota dairy industry, which now is down to two processors and about 88 dairy operations, Bodine said.

"We're losing dairy and we're having to import milk to keep our processors going," he said.

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com

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