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Anti-corporate effect: Some state races affected by stances

Republican bests three for nomination HAZELTON, N.D. -- North Dakota's anti-corporate farming policy is still at center stage in the state, with policies dating to the 1930s, during the Non-Partisan League days. The Republican-dominated North Dak...

Republican bests three for nomination

HAZELTON, N.D. - North Dakota's anti-corporate farming policy is still at center stage in the state, with policies dating to the 1930s, during the Non-Partisan League days.

The Republican-dominated North Dakota Legislature in 2015 passed an exception for swine and dairy feedlot operations, then the North Dakota Farmers Union successfully led an election to refer the exemptions to the voters and won with 75 percent voting against it. There is nothing on the ballot about this on Nov. 8, but it had its effect on some legislative races.

The Nov. 8 election will focus on regulatory issues, and state agencies are often the surrogates for federal laws involving clean water and labor issues. In some cases, candidates in the primary were affected by their stance on hot button issues such as anti-corporate farming.

Jeff Magrum, a plumbing contractor, grew up on a farm where he developed a 100-head cow-calf beef operation. The candidate says his stance against anti-corporate farming exemptions seemed to have helped him gain some voters in the 28th District, which includes parts or all of Emmons, Logan and McIntosh counties, and parts of Burleigh, LaMoure and Dickey counties.

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Beating all

Magrum won 33 percent of the primary vote, besting three-time incumbent Rep. Mike Brandenburg, R-Edgeley, by 31.4 percent, and beating long-time incumbent William Kretschmar, R-Venturia, and challenger Bart Schott, by 17.7 percent. Schott is a former president of the National Corn Growers Association. Magrum and Brandenburg are now unopposed in the general election.

Part of his primary success was geographical representation, Magrum acknowledges, but the anti-corporate farming issue "was one of the key issues that we discussed when I was out campaigning." Magrum believes family corporations in farming have gotten large enough. "There are enough family corporations in agriculture already," he says. "I don't like to see it go any further than it is already."

He says some people in his district might have been influenced by conversations with visiting pipeline construction workers from other states. One farmer from Arkansas told him he was worried about growing his farm further because of the "pressures of big corporations coming into Arkansas, buying everything they could get their hands on or running the rents up." He has "fears" that any "foot in the door" on corporate farming would be followed by pressures to increase acreages.

"It'll get too big," he says. "We all know corporations are designed to grow. They'll find a way to get more growth out of their investment."

Effect minimal

Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union speculates the impacts from the anti-corporate farming stance of a legislator would be minimal. People determine votes on a variety of factors, he says, but some legislators or candidates who "pushed it hard" could have been affected.

North Dakota politics is generally conservative, whether it's Democrats or Republicans. He doesn't think the issue would be enough to affect the Republican supermajority.

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The North Dakota Farm Bureau filed suit in early June, just before the primary election, challenging the constitutionality of the anti-corporate statute. On Oct. 12, the NDFU filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit, with interest in participating in the litigation against the NDFB suit.

The anti-corporate farming law recently has figured into the nationally-recognized Dakota Access Pipeline demonstration, where an oil pipeline is planned under the Missouri River, south of Bismarck-Mandan. The oil company announced it would purchase 7,000 acres of ag land in that neighborhood, and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem will be a key figure in deciding whether an oil company legally can use the land to produce agricultural crops.

Pipeline link

The North Dakota Stockmen's Association and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring have complained that protesters have obstructed farming and ranching families, and set a bad precedent for legal property development. It is unlikely the election will change that.

Current Gov. Jack Dalrymple is a Republican who still runs large land holdings that date to the Bonanza farming era in the state and led a cooperative pasta company that he converted to a corporation. He signed the anti-corporate farming exemptions.

Dalrymple's likely successor is Doug Burgum, another corporate CEO. Burgum has made a point of emphasizing his farm roots. He famously said he "bet the farm" to start Great Plains Software company - a business-to-business software company - which he sold to Microsoft for billions of dollars. He is from an Arthur, N.D., and sits on the board of Arthur Companies Inc., a 110-year-old grain handling and agribusiness.Burgum's running mate, Brent Sanford, is the mayor of Watford City, and a car dealer.

Describing his position on the anti-corporate farming law, Burgum says that is a "globally competitive business, and it is vital that farmers and ag producers in North Dakota have the same access to capital as other businesses." He wants the state to focus on value-added ag products and specialty crops to help insulate our state's agriculture sector from commodity prices, which we cannot control.

Other hands

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Burgum's main competition is Rep. Marvin E. Nelson, D-Rolla, a crop consultant, and his running mate, Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, a retired teacher.

Nelson, who would be up for House re-election in 2018, says he's in favor of changing the state constitution to allow the Legacy Fund to invest in North Dakota projects, such as a large nitrogen fertilizer plant at Grand Forks. He wants to shore up the state's mental health services to be of help for farmers in the economic downturn. He voted against the anti-corporate farming exemptions, saying it would not help existing farmers and would make it possible for nonprofit foundations to "tie up land" for their own environmental priorities.

Burgum says he wants to push back on federal regulations that hamper the state's agriculture industry.

Watne says the bigger issue will be smaller than budget cuts and whether agricultural research and extension will be bigger. "The willingness to cut the programs and cut that budget and take money out of ag research is a mistake," he says. "We need that money. It's one of our assets that we do to try to compete in this world of very low crop prices. I don't want that to be industry-led research. I want that to have government-backed research so we can get unbiased research to try to help farmers through these interesting times."

Extension budgets are more vulnerable to cuts because they don't have any mechanism such as tuition rates to shore up

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., is likely to win re-election to his second term, after serving 10 years as governor. Among other things, he sits on the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, which will begin addressing a new farm bill in 2017. Hoeven recently announced a bill to increase amounts for farmers guaranteed loan programs, a bill to stop a new federal rule on anhydrous ammonia, and to keep ag exemptions from certain Clean Water Act regulations.

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., is running for his third term, but does not sit on the agriculture committee.

The Nov. 8 ballot includes a state measure to require state legislators to live in their district for 30 days prior to an election, and continue living there through their term.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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