North Dakota agriculture commissioner says promoting livestock is a struggle
North Dakota law forbids corporations from owning agricultural land in the state, a law designed to protect family farms. But modern animal agriculture facilities require significant amounts of capital. While some out-of-state investors are interested in doing business in North Dakota, Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring says the law shuts them out.
North Dakota’s efforts to promote animal agriculture have largely been relegated to helping existing operations expand, in part because of the state’s anti-corporate farming law, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said.
North Dakota trails neighboring states, most notably South Dakota, in livestock production. While South Dakota has seen growth, especially in dairy and hogs, North Dakota is struggling to find answers.
“If we weren't doing something, we would do it,” Goehring said. “We've turned every rock over … there's just limitations given the law in North Dakota, as to what we can do.”
North Dakota law forbids corporations from owning agricultural land in the state, a law designed to protect family farms. But modern animal agriculture facilities require significant amounts of capital. While some out-of-state investors are interested in doing business in North Dakota, Goehring says the law shuts them out.
“Until those (laws) change, I don't think animal agriculture, from what I continue to hear from the livestock industry, they don't see it growing or flourishing,” Goehring said. “And in fact, we keep losing even our midsize dairies because it's not economically viable for them.”
When trying to recruit livestock operations, “it was front and center, which is the anti-corporate farming law that prevented them from having a presence in North Dakota.”
The cost, he says, is just too large for a family partnership.
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“We knew that animal ag facilities are expensive. We had no idea to the degree, how expensive they were, ranging on some of these facilities from several million dollars to $80 million for a poultry operation that wanted cage-free eggs for the California market,” Goehring said.
He said that price tag was about three years ago, and construction costs have inflated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Goehring said the egg company was interested in North Dakota because of its open spaces and ability to provide a more bio-secure environment than states with a more dense livestock population.
Goehring said his department has been working on what some others in the industry sees as another limiting factor — local ordinances that are more restrictive than what is on the state’s books. He said his department has identified about a dozen counties and close to 30 townships that don’t comply with state law on some details, such as setbacks.
The department is able to review ordinances when someone requests a review and provide that information to the state attorney general’s office.
South Dakota State University Extension swine specialist Bob Thaler said one thing that South Dakota did was survey the state for the best possible sites for livestock operations, based on factors such as roads and access to water and power.
“Do that mapping and then leave it up to the county,” Thaler said. “We want to do it responsibly.”
Goehring, who raises cattle in Burleigh County, said North Dakota has done that “to a degree.” For those looking to grow animal ag, “Tell us the size of operation and we have many locations that probably fit your needs,” he said.
Amber Boeshans is the executive director of the North Dakota Livestock Alliance that in September hosted a day-long conference to try to answer questions and offer solutions about growing animal ag with experts such as Thaler.
Her group doesn’t take a stance on the corporate farm limitations but says North Dakota can attract more animal ag and can learn from South Dakota and other states.
Her organization is only about three years old and now is trying to play catch-up.
“We’ve just got to hurry up,” Boeshans said. “We’re behind the times.”