The State Battling the Corporate Giants … in Farming

The State Battling the Corporate Giants … in Farming

Round Prairie Township, west of Williston, North Dakota.

SourceKen Cedeno/Corbis via Getty Images

Why you should care

Because raging against the machine isn’t just a city thing.

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The North Dakota plains stretch farther than the imagination allows, and amid acres upon acres of farms and ranches, the clogged streets and skyscrapers of faraway Wall Street seem almost fictional. And yet the sentiments of your protest-minded, Big Apple millennial firebrand and your average Roughrider State family farmer may not be such worlds apart — at least not when it comes to one issue: taking on big business.

That’s because:

North Dakota is one of nine states that prohibit or limit corporate farming — and the only one with no exemption for livestock.

Historically, North Dakota led the charge on such legislation, enacting it during the height of the Great Depression in part to protect bankrupt farmers whose lands were being seized by banks and railroad barons, says Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union. In the following decades, many other states across the union followed suit, hoping to keep farming in the hands of local landowners and away from the Daddy Warbucks of the world. The argument was that out-of-state corporations wielded outsize power to buy up land, artificially increasing costs for smaller farm operations and shutting them out of the industry in their backyards. The problem of land prices is especially acute today because farmers have to buy up much more land in order to stay competitive.

It’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, to go back to having lots of midsize farms.

Jonathan Hladik, policy director, Center for Rural Affairs

But in 2015, the state legislature passed SB 2351 to legalize corporate ownership of swine and dairy farms. Last year, that law was denied by a ballot measure in which 75 percent of North Dakota voters said no to corporate farming. “The pork industry is becoming more and more vertically integrated, as the chicken industry did. What you’re really seeing is beef producers coming out and lobbying against the law, because they are very fearful that it’s going to happen to their industry too,” says Jonathan Hladik, policy director at the Center for Rural Affairs, which opposed SB 2351. Now the issue is being hashed out by the courts, with pro-corporate farming groups challenging the ban as unconstitutional. “It’s no different to me than a zoning law in a city,” argues Watne, whose union supports the ban.

Nationwide, such protections have slowly eroded, with companies such as Monsanto and Dupont flexing their muscle — for activists, the most crushing blow was a stringent Nebraska law that had lasted a quarter century and collapsed in 2005. That’s allowed crop giants to control all the means of production in a vertical integration model, maximizing efficiency and profits, but shutting out many small business owners in the process. “It’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, to go back to having lots of midsize farms,” says Hladik.

Not everyone believes the situation is so dire. The state’s economy, ranked the 10th worst nationally by financial data site WalletHub, almost surely would have benefited from overturning the corporate ban, says David Saxowsky, an agribusiness professor at North Dakota State University. And current laws that hold ownership to no more than a dozen or so family members limit businesses’ ability to adapt or merge resources.

What’s more, Saxowsky believes concerns — that land prices would suddenly go through the roof — are inflated. “If farmland in North Dakota was such a good investment, Bill Gates or Warren Buffet would have bought the state,” Saxowsky quips, one way or another. Still, don’t be surprised if the next Occupy Wall Street sounds a little like “Occupy Monsanto.”

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