Measure 1 vote on corporate farming nears
GRAND FORKS -- North Dakota agriculturalists are clashing over a proposal, known as Measure 1, that would weaken the state's longstanding ban on corporate farming
Now, with a statewide vote nearing, a leading farm organization that opposes the ban has filed a lawsuit to overturn it altogether. The North Dakota Farm Bureau, which generally opposes government regulations and restrictions, announced the lawsuit Thursday at press conferences in Fargo and Bismarck.
The possibility of such a move had been discussed for some time in state ag circles.
"The laws of our state, as they stand today, are forcing North Dakota's farm families to make
business management decisions that other businesses are not being forced to make. North Dakota Farm Bureau believes our anti-corporate farming laws are discriminatory and unconstitutional," Daryl Lies, NDFB president, said in a news release.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court, comes two weeks before the June 14 primary election, which allows a statewide vote on the 2015 Legislature's move to partially lift the state's anti-corporate farming law. SB 2551 would allow a non-family corporation or limited liability company to own and operate a dairy or swine farm.
A yes vote on Measure 1 will affirm SB 2351; a no vote will repeal it.
Supporters say it would boost the state's long-declining swine and dairy industries by giving them more access to capital and expansion options.
"The current state of the dairy and swine industries in North Dakota is pretty sad," said Republican Sen. Joe Miller, who raises crops in Park River and was a main sponsor of the legislative bill. "The numbers just continue to dwindle. We need to support those industries by giving them the tools they need."
Opponents, including the state's other leading farm group, the North Dakota Farmers Union, believe iit would hurt family farmers and rural communities.
"We believe family farms have been the backbone of the rural economy for many, many years," said Kayla Pulvermacher, NDFU member advocacy director. "We support our local communities."
The Farmers Union circulated petitions to refer the bill after the Legislature approved it.
North Dakota has traditionally valued family farms; its anti-corporate farming law has been in place since 1932. Today, it's one of nine states with laws that prohibit or limit corporate farming, and most of them allow exemptions for livestock. The other states are South Dakota, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas, according to the National Agricultural Law Center.
North Dakota, like other states, already is losing farms. The state now has about 30,000 farming operations, down from 65,400 in 1950.
Of the 30,000 farms today, roughly 20,000 have annual sales of less than $100,000, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. Conducted every five years, the Census provides the most comprehensive numbers available.
Nearly half of 20,000, however, had annual sales of less than $1,000, and sometimes are referred to as hobby farms.
Farms overall are becoming bigger, too. Roughly 6,100, or one in five, of North Dakota farms had annual sales of at least $500,000 in 2012.
Miller and other Measure 1 supporters said agriculture is changing, and Measure 1 will help North Dakota ag change with it.
"People need to realize that farmers are businessmen," Miller said.
Pulvermacher and other Measure 1 opponents said the proposal would lead to further consolidation at the expense of family farms.
"Family farming has served us well in North Dakota," she said.
Measure 1 opponents, especially the North Dakota Farmers Union and Dakota Resource Council, have been much more active and visible than supporters, political observers say.
For example, the Dakota Resource Council brought ag author and speaker John Ikerd, a strong critic of corporate farming, to North Dakota on a four-city tour in May.
Miller said the Farmers Union is well-organized at the county level, and consequently well-positioned to take an active role.
He said North Dakotans with whom he's visited individually seem to understand and support Measure 1 after he's had a chance to explain it.
The North Dakota Farm Bureau, which said it wants the restriction against corporate farming lifted on other ag sectors, too, has taken a relatively muted approach to Measure 1 publicly. Lies, a Douglas farmer who raises hogs, sheep and goats, did not return several phone messages seeking comment.
In the press release issued Thursday, he said, "Our court system is the only appropriate place to settle this question without the issue being derailed by emotion, or fueled by public relations and advertising firms. This is a perfect example of why we have a judicial branch of government; to settle public questions outside the realm of emotion, personal biases, legislative expedience and politics."
The suit was filed in Fargo, but will be transferred to Southwestern Federal District Court in Bismarck, according to the Farm Bureau.
Pulvermacher said North Dakotans clearly and strongly support family farms.
Asked about the possibility of the Farm Bureau taking legal action against the state ban, she said, "This isn't a new threat. It's been put out there before."
A legal challenge against the ban may or may not succeed, she said.
"The bottom line for us is, we believe we're going to succeed in the court of public opinion," Pulvermacher said. "North Dakotans don't want this (corporate farming)."