Thank God for North Dakota

On Tuesday, June 14, North Dakotans went to the polls in a primary election to decide, among other things, the fate of North Dakota’s long-standing anti-corporate farming law. Since 1932, North Dakota law has prohibited corporations from engaging in farming and ranching or owning farm or ranch land.

That law, a child of depression-era, progressive reforms birthed by North Dakota’s Non-Partisan League, stood up to multiple legislative assaults over the decades. But in 2015, the North Dakota Legislature passed SB 2351, which would have created exemptions to the law allowing corporate ownership of swine and dairy operations.

The final version of Senate Bill 2351 was passed by the North Dakota Legislature on March 19 and signed into law by Governor Jack Dalrymple on March 20 during the 2015 legislative session. 

But on June 14, the people of North Dakota voted, by a 3 to 1 margin, on an initiated measure - Measure #1 - to repeal SB 2351 and return North Dakota’s corporate farming law to it’s previous state. Thank God for the calm, enduring wisdom of the people of North Dakota.

Back in 2015, when I talked to North Dakota Farmers Union President Mark Watne, we both commented about how eerily similar the attack on North Dakota’s corporate farming law was the the legislative assault on Nebraska’s law prohibiting packer ownership of livestock. It lead us to believe that there might be a common source for these and other attacks on corporate farming laws that have occurred throughout the Midwest and Great Plains. 

North Dakota Farmers Union lost their battle in the Legislature in 2015. The Center for Rural Affairs lost our battle in the Legislature (LB 176) in 2016.

However, the parallels in our two states ends there, thanks to the leadership of Mark Watne. Led by President Watne, the state board of the North Dakota Farmers Union unanimously voted to pursue a referendum on March 27, 2015. They quickly gathered the necessary signatures to put the repeal of SB 2351, and the future of their state’s corporate farming law, to a vote of the people. And they worked diligently, with their members and other allied organizations, to win the vote… hands down.

Americans are better off when those who work the nation’s farm and ranches are individuals and families who have the opportunity to control their own land and labor, and a desire to create a better future for rural and small town America. Our work to foster a family farming and ranching system that is socially just, economically equitable, and environmentally sound depends on standing up to those who seek to industrialize and corporatize agriculture, and rip the economic benefits of farming and ranching from the hands of family farmers, ranchers and the small towns they call home.

We owe a special debt to a lot of people in North Dakota over this vote against corporate farming, too many to mention here. But I’ll offer these words of gratitude, and hope that no one who worked to achieve this victory goes unnoticed.

  • Thank you Mark Watne, for your leadership of North Dakota Farmers Union. And to your board, your members, and your staff for all you do for North Dakota in dedication to North Dakota’s family farmers and ranchers. A special note of thanks to Kayla Pulvermacher, of your staff, for her tireless work and for helping us help you whenever we could.
  • Thank you Sarah Vogel, for bringing your voice and presence into this fight. Your experience as a former North Dakota Commissioner of Agriculture and a lifetime of fighting for family farmers and ranchers was indispensable. And thanks for helping bring our friend Willie Nelson into the fray as well. Willie and Farm Aid have also spent decades fighting these fights, and their voice also made a difference.
  • Thank you Alison Beutler. I know that most people that read this don't know Alison. She’s a friend, but not a farmer, and probably not a Farmers Union member. But she lives (and votes) in North Dakota. And when I urged her through a Facebook comment to remember to vote #NoOnMeasure1, she responded, “I voted early so I could vote NO on Measure 1… NO, NO, NO.”

Your vote mattered Alison, and your determination to make that vote count is representative of how clear North Dakotans were in sending a message on corporate farming. Moreover, you got the voting ratio right as well - NO, NO, NO.