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Jacobs: Corporate farming still haunts North Dakota

GRAND FORKSTerry Wanzek chose the right word to describe corporate farming.Wanzek, R-Jamestown, is the state senator who sponsored legislation that would amend North Dakota's anti-corporate farm laws. The bill's been referred, and its fate will b...

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GRAND FORKS
Terry Wanzek chose the right word to describe corporate farming.
Wanzek, R-Jamestown, is the state senator who sponsored legislation that would amend North Dakota’s anti-corporate farm laws. The bill’s been referred, and its fate will be decided at the primary election on June 14.
The word he used is “bogeyman.” “The corporate farm bogeyman does not exist,” he argued in a Viewpoint printed last week (“North Dakota agriculture needs Measure 1,” Page A6, May 21).
Well, of course the bogeyman exists - but only as an item of political nostalgia. The mania about corporate farming gripped North Dakota in the Dust Bowl years, and its grip has never lessened. Corporate farming is one of the great bogeymen of North Dakota history.
The original law banning corporate ownership of agricultural land was passed in 1932 as an initiated measure. The vote was 57 percent to 43 percent; that was 84 years ago to the month.
Since then, the anti-corporate farming law has survived the Legislature, the ballot and the courts.
The original law was repealed in 1993, only to be rewritten allowing persons closely related by blood to form corporations that own land and forbidding not-for-profit organizations to own land.
Well, a lot has happened since 1932.
Even since 1993.
And it proves that the anti-corporation law has not been an effective safeguard for farmers.
North Dakota has lost nearly two-thirds of its farms since the 1930s, and the number of farms continues to fall - even though the anti-corporate farming law has been in effect through all of those years.
It didn’t work, folks.
The anti-corporate farming law didn’t save farms.
Yet it continues to appeal to North Dakotans.
Why?
It’s because so many of us come from small farms. Of course, we are reluctant to return to those days, but we cast our misty eyes backyard and believe we should, and can, protect the way of life of our grandparents’ generation.
The truth is, though, that incorporation is not a weapon pointed at farmers. It is a tool for them to build stronger businesses. Significantly, incorporation spreads risk, making it easier to negotiate the waves and troughs of the agricultural economy. Significantly, too, it provides easier access to money, an antidote to under-capitalization, which plagues all small businesses.
From laundromats to liquor stores, other small businesses have access to these tools, if they choose to use them.
Only farmers do not, and only in nine states. Here’s the list: North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Missouri.
Notice anything about this list?
These states form a big block right in the middle of the country.
What do these states have in common?
A radical agrarian past - and declining farm numbers.
This year’s referendum won’t eliminate the ban on corporations owning farm land. It creates an exemption for livestock operations, which could own up to 640 acres.
Here we run into a different issue: treatment of animals.This should be addressed in regulation, though, and not by shutting these operations out completely. Only North Dakota has a law that does that.
This brings us to a final point in favor of allowing incorporation. It’s a lot easier to bring pressure on a corporation that’s behaving badly toward animals or the environment than it is to bring the same kind of pressure on a family-owned operation.
We ought to put the bogeyman of incorporation to good use, by creating a watchdog culture - and it shouldn’t be limited to agriculture. The corporations poking holes in the earth and leaking salt water on the land could use some attention, too.
So I’m voting yes on Measure One, to uphold Wanzek’s work in the Legislature to amend the anti-corporate farming law.
In a way, this surprises me. I am every bit a child of the politics that has maintained the anti-corporate farming law. For a year, I worked for the North Dakota Farmers Union, the organization behind the “Vote No” campaign.
I grew up milking cows and cutting calves on a hardscrabble farm in the toughest part of the state. I value the lessons I learned there. Cutting calves didn’t prove very useful in my career, but I still get laughs from my imitation of a milking machine.
North Dakota has around 30,000 fewer farms than it did when I left Mountrail County to get the education that my parents were certain would help me build a better life.
North Dakota’s big challenge has been to absorb all of us coming off these farms and looking for that better life. The state’s record hasn’t been so good. North Dakota produced thousands of young people during the Baby Boom, and not very many of us stayed. The state’s economy simply couldn’t absorb us.
Today, refashioning the state’s economy is the issue of the primary election campaign - the liveliest in decades in North Dakota. The ballot offers a chance to strip away some of the accretions of that past that have limited our ability to build a future big enough for every North Dakotan who wants a part of it.
Measure One is a start.
Jacobs is retired as editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, which is part of Forum News Service. Email him at mjacobs@gfherald.com .

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