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Mikkel Pates, Agweek

COLUMN: People, not corporations, have a connection to the land

BISMARCK, N.D. — I recently took a drive to South Dakota to meet with some clients who have a large concentrated animal feeding operation proposed on their neighbor’s land. They’re not happy about it. And some of them are farmers.

One of the farmers, Terry Little, wrote a letter to the editor about it, noting he uses genetically modified corn and soybeans, spends hundreds of thousands of dollars per year on chemicals and fertilizer, and drives his oversize equipment down the local roads. He says he farms about 2,000 acres of land. He is also one of the most vocal opponents of a new chicken concentrated animal feeding operation that his neighbor would like to sell the rights to develop next door. Terry operates a good size farm with modern technology, so he can’t be accused of being opposed to technological innovation when it comes to farming practices.

What Terry didn’t agree with was a zoning application that indicated an initial plan to raise 4 million laying hens on a 320-acre parcel, though the actual facility housing them would likely be much smaller. Apparently, after realizing the zoning setbacks would not allow this because it was too close to the nearby city of Watertown, S.D., the number of 4 million was adjusted and replaced with 1.4 million, the maximum allowed by the setback from the city.

I’ll wager most farmers would never consider raising 1.4 million hens on 320 acres. That’s less than half a square foot of ground per hen. And 320 acres is generous, because the facility will be much smaller. The truth is, these are industrial facilities that do not belong in the countryside — they belong in an industrial park. If we have issues with raising food in an industrial park, that’s a conversation for another day.

But numbers aside, I have recently heard questions from a number of people about corporate farming, family farming and the difference between them. This discussion often creates questions regarding the size of the operation, both in number of animal units and in the number of acres supporting a farm or facility. I suggest the real difference starts with something I have written about before — our connection to the land.

Despite some recent rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court, I do not agree that corporations are people. I can’t shake a corporation’s hand, or have a beer with a corporation. I can with a farmer.

In the same vein, I do not believe corporations can have a connection to the land. There are no “fourth generation” corporations out there farming the prairie that their predecessor-in-interest first put under the plow a hundred years ago while living in a sod house.

What about family farm corporations? They’re still families, and that’s the point — we allow that exception because what is most important is there are real people with a real stake in the land (and not just a purely financial stake in future profits or a stake in merely keeping the land out of production). A corporation answers to its shareholders. A farmer answers to his family, his community and his creator.

As Terry wrote in the Watertown Public Opinion, “It’s a total myth given to us by extremely greedy individuals that are promoting their own business that says we must get larger and larger. I am getting my son started in farming and am trying to show him how farming with a focus on family and way of life far outweighs a life of farming for profit only.”