With input from Farmers Union, North Dakota House votes to loosen corporate farming rules
Under House Bill 1371, feedlots or dairies could partner with a corporation and no longer fall under the definition of farming and ranching.
BISMARCK — After decades of the North Dakota Farmers Union opposing changes to state laws restricting corporate farming, input from the group may help relax those rules to benefit livestock production.
The North Dakota House on Tuesday, Feb. 21, voted in favor of a bill that would make it easier for animal agriculture to reverse decades of decline with help from outside investors.
With references to the state’s largest farm organization, which is the Farmers Union, being at least neutral on the bill, the House passed the bill 70-24, sending it to the Senate.
“They were along every step of the way on this one and the amendments, as you see, were acceptable and were proposed by them, so we worked closely with them,” Rep. SuAnn Olson, R-Baldwin, said before the vote. “So I think that's important to remember that the major farm groups are supporting this.”
Matt Perdue of the North Dakota Farmers Union said in an interview that the group worked with bill supporters on major amendments that the organization feels will protect family farmers and ranchers.
Those amendments include:
- Requiring the majority of shareholders in any livestock corporation to be operators
- Limiting the number of shareholders to 10
- Requiring that livestock corporations are subject to the same regulations and reporting requirements as family-owned farms.
Under House Bill 1371, dairies and feeding operation for cattle, hogs and poultry would no longer fall under the definition of farming and ranching, meaning North Dakota’s anti-corporate farming law, which limits farms to family ownership, would not apply to those operations.
The bill would allow a corporation to own up to 160 acres of farmland and one operator would be limited to being a partner in four such corporations.
"Passage of this bill does not make it easier for wealthy individuals to buy agricultural land in North Dakota," Rep. Jay Fisher, R-Minot. "This bill provides a carve out that only applies to animal agriculture. Anti-corporate farming laws pertaining to crop farming will remain in place."
Perdue said the organization still would prefer the laws stay as is, however, they recognize strong interest from other ag groups and from legislators to open up the state's anti-corporate farming law to promote animal agriculture.
Some opponents to the bill cited an attempt in the Legislature in 2015 to loosen corporate farming restrictions. The Farmers Union led an effort to repeal the law in a statewide vote.
Rep. Donna Henderson, from Cavalier County, said that referendum kept her from supporting the change.
"My home county, it passed by 85%," she said. "There's no way I can vote for this and go against the wishes of my county."
But the change in stance by Farmers Union was persuasive for others.
Rep. Jon Nelson, R-Rugby, said he had voted against every attempt to loosen corporate farming laws since he started serving in the Legislature in 1997, and was inclined to not support the current bill in it's original form .
"This isn't 2015, this is 2023," Nelson said. "In past bill drafts, the largest farm organization in the state has never been at the table. This time, they were. ... They worked diligently with the sponsors of the bill to remedy some of the concerns they had and, at the end of the day, they feel that it protects family farm interests."
In a statement released Tuesday, Farmers Union said it has a neutral position on the bill and “will continue to protect family farmer and rancher control of animal agriculture.”
North Dakota, a powerhouse in crop production, drastically lags behind neighboring states in livestock production , most notably South Dakota, which has promoted animal agriculture in recent years. For example, South Dakota now has 187,000 dairy cows while North Dakota has just 14,000.
Supporters said the livestock growth would also benefit the grain industry, providing a local market for things such as soybean meal and other livestock feed. Crop farmers can also benefit from manure as a lower-cost fertilizer.
Changing the corporate farm law has been a priority for Gov. Doug Burgum as a way to stimulate the rural economy.
Agweek editor Jenny Schlecht contributed to this report.