Mixed reactions to ND House passage of anti-corporate exemptions

BISMARCK, N.D. -- The North Dakota House Agriculture Committee on March 16 passed new exemptions for dairy and swine for the anti-corporate farming bill. The bill goes back to the Senate to consider amendments passed in the House version.

Tracy Frank/The Forum

BISMARCK, N.D. -- The North Dakota House Agriculture Committee on March 16 passed new exemptions for dairy and swine for the anti-corporate farming bill. The bill goes back to the Senate to consider amendments passed in the House version.

The bill needed 48 votes to pass the House and exceeded that, on a vote of 56-37. House Agriculture Chairman Dennis Johnson, R-Devils Lake, said the bill passed largely on a party vote, with Republicans voting for it, except a few rural legislators who were getting heavy pressure from the North Dakota Farmers Union, which had come out opposed to it.

The House had expected to vote on the measure on March 13, but delayed the vote to develop new amendments. The final language involved animal feeding operations of at least 50 dairy cows and 300 swine.

Some of the floor debate involved whether the bill would favor out-of-state investors. Johnson said the bill only refers to the structure of the business and not where the investors live.

"You could have 10 to 15 neighbors go together," he said. "It's the structure you're trying to create."


Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Joe Miller, R-Park River, said he hadn't seen the bill, but will determine whether he would sign off on amendments. Amendments would go to the full Senate first, followed by the entire amended bill. Miller could offer no timetable but prime sponsor Sen. Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown, said he expected Senate action in the next week or two.

Jeff Zent, spokesman for Gov. Jack Dalrymple, said the governor wants to understand what's in the final bill before taking a stance on it.

Against the survey

Mark Watne, president of the NDFU and a farmer from the Velva, N.D., area, said passing SB 2351 was disappointing because it ignores North Dakotans who in a recent survey sponsored by his organization said they "want farmland ownership and agricultural production to be in the hands of families making a living off the land."

Watne said the amendments passed in the bill to prevent corporations from controlling multiple 640-acre tracts are not sufficient.

"We're not convinced by a long shot that the amendments fully address our concerns or those raised by the Secretary of State's office," Watne wrote in a news release. "The bill gives the North Dakota Agriculture Department the authority to set rules for corporate compliance, which is nothing short of the fox guarding the henhouse, and it puts an inappropriate burden on the state Health Department to determine who can and can't incorporate in North Dakota."

Watne explained that Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring would be the "fox" because "he's the one pushing the bill."

Goehring said he's a supporter of the bill's intent but has only testified once on it.


As for the "fox and the henhouse" reference, he said, "I took an office to uphold the constitution of North Dakota and comply with the laws, to regulate and enforce those laws. I will do the same with whatever I'm asked of the Legislature to do."

'Don't give up'

Corne and Connie Van Bedaf of Carrington, N.D., are a Dutch family who came to North Dakota to build a dairy in 2009 and have since doubled it to 1,300 cows.

"We're in favor and are glad it passed," Connie Van Bedaf said.

She had written letters to legislators, urging them to vote for it and "not give up on North Dakota's dairy industry."

The Van Bedafs said their cost of production is cost-competitive, despite the region's colder weather.

She said her farm had equity from dairies they operated and sold in Canada and the Netherlands, but some newer producers would not have that advantage. Bringing in new operations would strengthen the industry as a whole.

"You need more producers to keep the processors going," she said. "The processors won't be competitive if they're scrambling for milk from Minnesota or South Dakota."


The Van Bedafs deliver to a Kemps plant in Fargo, which sells dairy products under the Cass-Clay brand.

Craig Jarolimek, a swine producer and a former president of the National Pork Producers Council from Forest River, N.D., said he's happy the House passed the bill.

"I'm pleased that it moved by the margin it did," he said. "I think it shows that the legislators understand the issue and that they're ready to move forward in North Dakota with livestock development."

Jarolimek said all of the amendments appear to make good common sense. He said the requirement that a farm under corporate governance would have to keep at least 50 dairy cows and 300 hogs is a logical effort to make sure corporations aren't simply buying the 640 acres of land maximum for a farm, without being in the swine or dairy industry. He said annual exemption reviews are also good to make sure the act operates as it is intended.

Jarolimek said swine production is possible without the exemptions, but the bill sends a "right signal" that the state is open to development at every level.

Rep. Craig Headland, R-Montpelier, during floor debate, said he thought the bill should be expanded to other areas of farming, but didn't want to muddy the waters by adding that to the bill.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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