Port: Are we going to protect farmers from the tools they need to survive?

MINOT, N.D. -- In a couple of weeks, on primary day, voters will go to the polls and probably hand the North Dakota Farmer's Union a big victory over the Legislature.

MINOT, N.D. -- In a couple of weeks, on primary day, voters will go to the polls and probably hand the North Dakota Farmer’s Union a big victory over the Legislature.

The issue is Measure 1, which is a referendum on a law passed by the Legislature during its 2015 session easing our state’s restrictions on corporate farming. Specifically, the reforms allow for non-familial corporate ownership or leasing of up to 640 acres of land for the operation of a dairy farm or swine production facility by a domestic corporation or limited liability company.

Current law allows for corporate farming, but only if all shareholders in the corporation or limited liability company are no more distantly related than first cousins.

The Farmer’s Union has raised well over a million bucks for their campaign to refer the law to the ballot, and they’re probably going to win because the Legislature and the law’s supporters have done next to nothing to make an affirmative case for the changes.

In politics, you typically have to make an affirmative case for change, otherwise voters are going to stick with the status quo.


It’s easy to win when you’re campaigning in a vacuum.

I wish this weren’t going to be the outcome, mostly because I hate to see voters affirm the vapid and shallow argument behind the referendum, which is that this is somehow a competition between family farms and big corporations.

This simply isn’t true. In modern America, incorporation is a business strategy embraced by businesses both big and small. Everyone is incorporated these days.

This wasn’t the case during the Hoover administration, when North Dakota’s corporate farming ban was first put in place, but times change. The history of America’s economy is one of constant evolution.

Today, incorporation is a sound business strategy. Unfortunately, farmers and ranchers in North Dakota are hamstrung by their inability to legally invite investment from people who aren’t in their immediate family.

If you want to invest in your friend’s new restaurant, that’s perfectly legal. But if you want to invest in your friend’s dairy farm, you cannot. If second cousins want to keep the family farm business going into the third or fourth generation they’re going to have to get creative with the business organization because the law doesn’t allow second cousins to be partners in a farming corporation -- which is an absurd and insulting restriction on our freedom of association.

Supporters of this referendum will tell you that it’s about protecting family farms from corporate boogeymen. But this law has never done any such thing. Over the roughly 84 years of this law’s existence the number of farms in our state has declined.

“North Dakota has lost nearly two-thirds of its farms since the 1930s, and the number of farms continues to fall-even though the anti-corporate farming law has been in effect through all of those years,” columnist Mike Jacobs wrote recently.



In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any data at all to support the claim that the corporate farming ban has protected “family farms” in North Dakota. The motivation for the Farmer’s Union in defending it seems to be based on nothing more than political muscle memory.

They defend the ban because they’ve always defended the law.

North Dakota deserves something better than a rote, knee-jerk defense of archaic and badly outdated policy.

Port, founder of , a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator.

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