Legislature considers exempting dairy, hog farms from North Dakota anti-corporate farming law

Markets Associated Press

North Dakota should exempt dairy and pork operations from its more than 80-year-old anti-corporate farming law to help those industries rebound after years of decline, a state senator told fellow lawmakers Friday.

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"We cannot afford to ignore and do nothing about this issue," Sen. Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown, told the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Wanzek's legislation would allow non-family farm corporations to own or lease agriculture land, as long as the operations don't take up more than 640 acres of land, or a square mile.

"This bill is an attempt to help the dying dairy industry and our declining swine industry in this state," said Wanzek, a farmer. "Doing nothing is not an option."

Federal agriculture data show the number of dairy farms in North Dakota has decreased from about 350 in 2002 to 91 now. The number of dairy cows has dropped from 40,000 to 18,000 during that time, according to the National Agriculture Statistics Service.

Swine numbers have also declined from about 280,000 in 1995 to about 139,000 in 2014, data show.

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North Dakota's anti-corporate farming law dates to 1932, when it was put on the ballot as an initiated measure and approved by voters. It now allows corporations with as many as 15 shareholders to own farms or ranches, as long as the shareholders are related.

Supporters of the bill, including North Dakota's top agriculture official, say it would improve farmers' access to capital and spur the state's economy. Opponents, including the state's biggest farm group, say the current law blocks unfair competition from big, out-of-state corporations.

Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring told lawmakers that the state's dairy and pork industries are in "dire straits." Allowing the exemptions would revive the industries and help fuel other agriculture business, such as feed and fertilizer, proponents said.

"This bill complements agriculture in North Dakota — not compete with it," Goehring said.

There is no guarantee the bill would do anything to help the pork and dairy industries, said Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, which has about 40,000 members. But it would allow out-of-state ownership of corporate farms, he said.

"Individuals should own the land and animals in North Dakota," he said.

Eight other states have laws restricting corporate farming, though most allow exemptions for some livestock operations, including neighboring South Dakota and Minnesota.

The number of hogs and cows in those states have increased or remained stable in recent years, while North Dakota numbers have dropped. Milk production in those states also has grown, while North Dakota dairy production is down.

Wanzek said the law has put North Dakota at an unfair advantage.

"Our farm producers need access to the same business tools that other states' farmers have to be competitive," he said.