[Marxism] North Dakotans Reconsider a Corporate Farming Ban, and Their Values

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jun 13 08:21:54 MDT 2016


NY Times, June 13 2016
North Dakotans Reconsider a Corporate Farming Ban, and Their Values
By JULIE BOSMAN

WING, N.D. — The Wagner family farmstead in central North Dakota could 
have been lifted from a Grant Wood painting: bales of hay rest on a 
gently sloping hill, cattle graze near a bright blue pond, green 
tendrils of durum and sunflowers peek out of the dirt.

The Wagners fear that all of this could someday be under threat from 
big, impersonal corporations. It is a concern that is expected to drive 
them, and other North Dakotans, to the polls on Tuesday to vote on a 
referendum that would make it possible for companies to buy up farms 
like theirs.

Starting in 1932, North Dakota law barred nonfamily corporations from 
owning farmland or operating farms. But that changed in March of last 
year when the state Legislature passed a bill that would relax the 
corporate farming ban and Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed it into law.

Citizens protested the new law, with the state’s farmers union at the 
forefront, which led to the referendum that voters will face on Tuesday. 
The law was set to take effect last August, but its fate rests on the 
outcome of the referendum.

A vote for the measure would uphold the new law, which allows domestic 
corporations and limited liability companies to own and to operate dairy 
farms and swine production facilities on land that is no larger than 640 
acres, or one square mile. A vote against the measure would repeal the 
new legislation and restore the law that had governed farm and dairy 
operations in the state for more than eight decades.

While the debate is very much focused on maintaining the character of 
North Dakota, it also taps into widespread fears about the disappearance 
of family farms throughout the United States and the spread of big 
corporations and their farming methods into rural America.

People like the Wagners who support the earlier law — one of the 
strictest in the country — say that it protects the environment and 
family farmers like them.

“With corporate farming, they just don’t have the connections,” said 
Laurie Wagner, whose husband’s grandparents started the farm in the 
1930s, as she walked around the property on Thursday. “They could buy up 
all the land, and it means nothing to them. They could make it 
impossible for people like us to compete.”

Continue reading the main story

The issue has sharply divided North Dakotans. On rural roads outside 
Bismarck, the capital, some fields and front yards are decorated with 
bright green signs declaring, “No to Corporate Farming.” Many people are 
suspicious of big business and eager to preserve the state’s long 
heritage of family-owned farms.

Agriculture remains North Dakota’s dominant industry, with close to 
30,000 family-operated farms and ranches. In 2012, North Dakota became 
the first state to enshrine the “right to farm” in its Constitution.

“I think small towns and rural communities are at stake,” said State 
Representative Kenton Onstad, a Democrat and the minority leader. “I 
think the values of North Dakota are going to be given up and slowly erode.”

But those who support the ballot measure say that opponents are acting 
out of nostalgia and emotion. They argue that the farming and ranching 
business in North Dakota needs to evolve to stay competitive: Dairies 
and hog farms have declined in recent years, prompting many people to 
argue that the industries could use a boost.

“We have this picture in our head of the Hollywood farm, with the dairy 
cows, a couple of pigs, a couple of chickens,” said Katie Heger, a 
family farmer who favors allowing corporate farming. “There are very few 
farms that are like that. Farming and ranching is a business. So if 
we’re looking at sustaining agriculture in the state of North Dakota, we 
need to look at how we can build business.”

During last year’s debate, Governor Dalrymple, a Republican, said that 
he hoped changes to the farming law would encourage economic growth in 
the struggling dairy and swine industries. And he promised that the new 
legislation included safeguards to protect North Dakota’s family farms.

“The bill includes strict limits on the use of the business structure 
and we do not consider it a threat to the farm sector of North Dakota as 
we know it,” he said at the time.

The North Dakota Farmers Union, which opposed the bill, responded by 
gathering more than 20,000 signatures to force the measure onto the 
statewide ballot.

The union has spent heavily on mailers and television ads in recent 
weeks and recruited more than 1,000 volunteers to make phone calls and 
knock on doors to drum up support.

Mark Watne, the group’s president, said he believed that if the 
legislation went into effect, it could open the door to consolidation 
and the possibility that smaller farms could go out of business.

Family farmers, he said, have an incentive to train the next generation, 
while corporations could choose profits over longevity.

“We simply do not believe in our communities that the ownership of land 
in the hands of a corporate structure is in the interest of long-term 
agricultural production,” Mr. Watne said.

State Senator Terry M. Wanzek, a farmer and rancher who sponsored the 
bill last year, said that opponents are driven by unwarranted fears of 
big business.

“They think Monsanto or Walmart is going to come in and own everything,” 
Mr. Wanzek said. “I don’t see this as some big bad bogeyman who’s going 
to come in and take over the farm. If I felt in any way that it was 
going to threaten our heritage or our way of life on the farm to any 
great extent, I never would have supported it.”

Some have argued that allowing family farmers to incorporate could give 
them more access to outside capital and investors for expansion, like 
other businesses in the state under corporate structure.

“The disadvantage with North Dakota’s law is that you can’t have any 
other partners once you’ve incorporated except for a very direct 
relative,” said State Senator Joe Miller, the chairman of the 
agriculture committee and a sponsor of the bill. “You’re hamstringing 
neighbors to be able to come together, or outside investment partners, 
maybe a friend who lives in California who wants to invest. There’s all 
kinds of different opportunities that one could explore, and that’s 
completely off the table right now.”

The North Dakota Farm Bureau, a lobbying organization that has farmer 
members, has adopted an alternative tactic in case the new law is 
defeated that takes aim at the 1932 law banning corporate farming. 
Earlier this month, it filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the 
law, arguing that it is discriminatory and unconstitutional.

“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,” Daryl Lies, the president of 
the Farm Bureau, said in a statement.

David M. Saxowsky, a professor of agriculture at North Dakota State 
University, said that the debate speaks to a culture in North Dakota 
that places a heavy value on farmland.

“We’re very proud of our resources, we think that our land is attractive 
to investors and we are very proud of our desire to be the business 
owner,” he said. “And for those reasons, we want to provide an 
environment in which smaller businesses owned by families can succeed.”

Governor Dalrymple declined to be interviewed. In an emailed statement, 
he said, “It’s good that this will be decided by the people of North 
Dakota.”



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