On June 14, while electing their state representatives, the citizens of North Dakota will also decide whether to open their state to corporate agriculture or to uphold historical protections of family farming. The referendum is the result of widespread anger at a bill passed last March by the state legislature. Senate Bill 2351 overturned parts of the state’s 80-year-old ban against corporate farming, allowing corporate ownership of dairy and hog farms. The North Dakota Farmers Union collected over 21,000 signatures to put the issue to a popular vote.
The fight has pitted the NDFU against the state’s Farm Bureau chapter, which has emerged as a strong opponent of the state’s corporate farming restrictions. For those unfamiliar with these groups, they may seem like natural allies. But on corporate farming, the battle in North Dakota is a good illustration of their increasingly different views.
“Every organization has its issue,” says Kayla Pulvermacher, the director of member advocacy at the NDFU. “Corporate farming is definitely [ours].” The National Farmers Union has also long supported state-level corporate farming regulations, as well as other restrictions on corporate power such as a national ban on slaughterhouses owning livestock.
The North Dakota Farm Bureau stayed neutral during the vote on SB2351. But its position on the issue became clear on June 2nd when it sued the state, arguing that the ban on corporate farming violates the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. Similar arguments were used to overturn corporate farming laws in South Dakota and Iowa in 2003, and in Nebraska in 2006.
While grassroots groups like North Dakotans for Family Farms report that a majority of North Dakotans support upholding the restrictions on corporate farming, the Farm Bureau has power in the statehouse. Over a third of the North Dakota legislators who voted to pass SB2351 have received donations from the Farm Bureau in the past several years. And the state’s Agriculture Commissioner, Doug Goehring, used to be the Farm Bureau’s vice president.
As advocates and farmers prepared for this decisive vote, the issue became personal for the 200 residents of Buffalo, a small town near the Minnesota border. In January, residents got wind that the Department of Health was preparing to issue a permit to a 9,000-hog concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, to set up shop in the town. The hog facility would be owned by Pipestone Systems, a Minnesota-based company.
Residents of Buffalo, many of them independent farmers, called a town meeting to discuss the environmental and economic threats posed by the introduction of a CAFO. At a packed hearing, residents expressed concerns about water pollution, exposure to toxic fumes, and threats to their local farming economy. Now, they’re waiting to hear what the DOH decides. Many believe that the town itself is at stake.
“It doesn’t happen right away,” says Carolyn Dostert, a family farmer in the town, in a video produced by the Dakota Resource Council. “But within five to ten years of a corporate factory coming into a community, the stressors it places on a community rip it apart.”
The North Dakota Department of Agriculture has paid close attention to the situation in Buffalo. Emails obtained through an open records request show NDDA staff passing around media coverage of the protests against the plant, and praising a pro-Pipestone op-ed as “the most sensible article…regarding the whole situation.”
The emails also revealed that Commissioner Goehring and several other NDDA staff were prospecting for corporations to open livestock operations in North Dakota as early as January 20th, 2015, just a week before the introduction of SB2351. That same day, Thomas Bodine, the Deputy Commissioner of Agriculture, consulted the state’s assistant Attorney General for information on how other states had repealed laws banning corporate farming.
Despite Buffalo’s small size and distance from the state’s capital, many see the decision in that town as a harbinger for what’s to come for the rest of North Dakota. “If people don’t like the CAFO in Buffalo, they’re really not going to like what happens if corporate farming law is weakened,” says Tim Glaza, a field organizer with Dakota Resource Council.
Right now, North Dakota’s supporters of family farming are feeling good about their odds in the upcoming referendum. “We believe that we will have an overwhelming win on this issue,” Pulvermacher says.
Chris Wager contributed research to this piece.
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