North Dakotans put ‘corporate’ farming to vote

Voters back repeal of a law allowing corporate operation of dairy and hog farms

North Dakotans in a statewide referendum June 14 voted to repeal a law enacted last year that changed decades of family-farming rules in the state by allowing corporations to own and operate dairy and hog farms.

Results posted on the North Dakota state government website put the unofficial final vote count from the ballot measure at 98,677 votes for “No” and 31,679 votes for “Yes.”

“We always believed that the people of North Dakota would agree that the family farm structure is best for our state’s economy and our communities,” Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, said in release June 14.

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“The results tonight are a strong message that the people don’t want corporate farming in North Dakota.”

The NDFU and other groups that collected signatures to put the referendum on the ballot have said family farmers cannot compete with large agricultural firms with no ties to the communities where they operate.

Corporate and foreign control of U.S. farmland has been a hot-button issue in several major agricultural states in recent years as a multi-year commodities boom that began in 2007 has attracted non-farm investors.

State laws prohibiting corporations and foreign entities from owning U.S. farmland complicated a $4.7-billion acquisition in 2013 of U.S. pork producer Smithfield Foods by China’s Shuanghui International (all figures US$). The deal ultimately closed.

This February, a U.S. district judge issued an injunction barring Nebraska officials from enforcing the state’s ban on farmland ownership by corporations.

The North Dakota groups campaigned for a “No” vote on the referendum, rejecting Senate Bill 2351, which was signed into law in March 2015 by Republican Governor Jack Dalrymple.

Supporters of the bill, wanting a “Yes” vote, argued dairy and pork operations are on the decline in the state and cannot survive without corporations that can finance expensive equipment and compete regionally, according to the Yes for Dairies + Pork Producers website.

It is one of nine states that have laws limiting corporate farming, according to the National Agricultural Law Center. The North Dakota law, which dates to the Great Depression, says farming or ranching companies must have no more than 15 shareholders or members who must belong to the same family, to a distance of first cousins.

Senate Bill 2351, supported by Governor Dalrymple, was to exempt dairy and swine production from the corporate farming prohibition.

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