VIDEO PLAIN LIVING: Is agriculture a way of life or business?

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- A farm commodity group held a national meeting a few years ago in Grand Forks, N.D., where I'm based, and I talked with several out-of-state farmers about their businesses.

Jonathan Knutson

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - A farm commodity group held a national meeting a few years ago in Grand Forks, N.D., where I’m based, and I talked with several out-of-state farmers about their businesses.

One summarized his operation like this: A family business, run by a half-dozen family members and also employing several dozen non-family members. Then, his voice suddenly tinged with frustration, he said something along the lines of, “Family members are there working every day. We make all the decisions. But some people say we’re not a family farm.”

I think of his comments as the June 14 North Dakota primary election nears. On the ballot is Measure 1, which would weaken the state’s longstanding anti-corporate farming law.

Measure 1 supporters say it would attract capital and create jobs. They say it would allow the state and its agricultural sector to change with the times, and mostly for the better.

Measure 1 opponents say it would help “corporate farms,” and hurt “family farms” and farm towns. They say it would open the door for dangerous, even destructive change.


The issue interests me in different ways and on different levels. I’m an ag journalist, a native North Dakotan raised on a family farm and a guy who enjoys both history and economics.

This much I know: Upper Midwest agriculture has been evolving for generations. Farms continue to get bigger and fewer, with capital and technology increasingly substituted for physical labor. Farming operations that don’t change with the times never thrive and seldom survive for long. At the same time, farm towns are becoming smaller and fewer; there are exceptions, but rural communities overall continue to decline. By any honest measure, ag’s evolution has been both good and bad, and shows no sign of slowing down.

What I don’t know is how to define “family farm” and “corporate farm.” Agweek has a lot of really sharp readers, and maybe some of you can do it. If so, drop me a line.

My opinion: The terms are so emotionally charged and subjective that meaningful definitions are difficult, if not impossible, to come by. Intelligent, knowledgeable and well-intentioned people often come up with vastly different answers.

Ask yourself this There’s a better way to tackle the issue, I think. Ask yourself if agriculture is:

A. A way of life that should be protected at almost any cost.

B. A business that should be treated like any other business.

C. Both A and B.


If you answer A, you’ll probably vote in favor of Measure 1 (or would if you were a North Dakota voter).

If you answer B, you’ll probably vote against it (or would if you could).

If you answer C, you may still be making up your mind.

My answer? I think ag is both a way of life and a business - with the business aspect inherently and unavoidably the dominant factor.

That makes me, I suppose, a Measure 1 supporter, though one with reservations. I want agriculture to remain a way of life, with family farms playing a leading role. Measure 1, if approved, could compromise that.

But the alternative is even less palatable. Measure 1, flawed as it might be, would help North Dakota agriculture change with the times. Though the results won’t always be pretty or pleasant, ag can’t thrive or even survive if it doesn’t continue to evolve.

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