Petition signatures verified for North Dakota anti-corporate farming law referendum

Markets Associated Press

A farm group seeking to block a new law that exempts dairy and swine operations from North Dakota's anti-corporate farming legislation has successfully pushed the matter to a public vote, Secretary of State Al Jaeger said Tuesday.

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Jaeger said his office verified that petitions submitted by the North Dakota Farmers Union have enough valid signatures to put the measure on the June 2016 ballot, delaying the law's Aug. 1 effective date until the election. Voters will decide whether to keep the law or repeal it.

The so-called ham-and-cheese legislation signed by Gov. Jack Dalrymple in March exempts pork and dairy operations from the state's anti-corporate farming law. Supporters said the legislation is intended to revitalize dairy and swine farms after years of decline, and help fuel other agriculture business such as feed and fertilizer. Opponents say the law is an invitation for big, out-of-state corporations to set up operations in North Dakota.

Republican Sen. Terry Wanzek, who farms near Jamestown, and Sen. Joe Miller, R-Park River, also a farmer, were primary supporters of the legislation.

Miller said Tuesday that the nearly yearlong delay "is another setback in the dairy and swine industries that prevents us from growing." Miller, along with other supporters of the legislation, announced a coalition this week called "Yes for Dairies and Pork Producers" that will raise money and campaign to keep the law on the books.

"We will run a full-fledged campaign promoting the promise of the bill," Miller said.

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North Dakota's anti-corporate farming law dates to 1932. It allows corporations with as many as 15 shareholders to own farms or ranches, as long as the shareholders are related. The legislation at issue now relaxes the law for swine and dairy operations, as long as the operations don't take up more than 640 acres of land, or a square mile. Facilities would have to have at least 500 hogs or 50 dairy cows.

The North Dakota Farmers Union, which says the legislation does nothing to help the state's pork and dairy industries, delivered more than 21,000 signatures to Jaeger last month. It needed 13,452 valid signatures to get the issue on the ballot, and Jaeger said it had 19,354.

The group, which has more than 40,000 members, spent more than $41,000 on the referendum effort, campaign disclosure filings show.

"We're feeling pretty good that the first step has been completed," said Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union.

North Dakota's Constitution gives residents the right to force a statewide vote on bills approved by the Legislature.

Supporters of the legislation, including the state's top agriculture official, Doug Goehring, have said that overturning the new law would lead to a legal challenge and put the entire law in jeopardy of being ruled unconstitutional — something that has happened in other farm states.

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

State agriculture data show the number of dairy farms in North Dakota has decreased from about 540 in 2002 to fewer than 90 at present. The number of dairy cows has dropped from 40,000 to less than 18,000 during that time, according to the National Agriculture Statistics Service.

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