During the Great Depression, North Dakota banned corporations from owning farm land or farming, helping to preserve the small, family farms that may have otherwise been lost during the financial crisis. That 1932 ban lasted until 2015, when the state legislature passed a bill that the governor signed into law allowing corporate pork and dairy farms. The new law wouldn't overturn the original law, but it would alter it.
The North Dakota Farmers Union led a protest and gathered enough signatures to force a vote on the amendment. This week, voters overwhelmingly decided against allowing corporate farming. Seventy-six percent of them voted "no," according to Agweek.
For small farmers in North Dakota, this is both a livelihood and an environmental issue.
“We always believed that the people of North Dakota would agree that the family farm structure is best for our state’s economy and our communities,” Mark Watne, North Dakota Farmers Union president, told Agweek. “The results tonight are a strong message that the people don’t want corporate farming in North Dakota.”
The possibility of large corporations buying up most of the land and farming on a large scale could make it impossible for family farmers to compete. The New York Times spoke with the Wagner family, who owns a small farm in North Dakota. They're concerned about losing their livelihood and losing other small, family farms that are committed to protecting the environment.
“With corporate farming, they just don’t have the connections,” Laurie Wagner, whose husband’s grandparents started the farm in the 1930s, told the New York Times. “They could buy up all the land, and it means nothing to them. They could make it impossible for people like us to compete.”
But those who support the ballot measure say opponents are blinded by emotion, and from a business perspective, corporate-owned farms are needed to revive dairy and hog farms, which have declined in the last few years.
“We have this picture in our head of the Hollywood farm, with the dairy cows, a couple of pigs, a couple of chickens,” Katie Heger, a farmer who favors allowing corporate farming, said to the New York Times. “There are very few farms that are like that. Farming and ranching is a business. So if we’re looking at sustaining agriculture in the state of North Dakota, we need to look at how we can build business.”
There's still a chance that corporate farming may come to North Dakota anyway. The North Dakota Farm Bureau is suing in federal court to overturn the original 1932 ban. That group says it's unconstitutional and discriminates against some farmers. If the courts overturn that law, not only would corporate-owned pig and dairy farms be allowed, any farm in North Dakota could be corporate owned, according to Politico.
According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture Farm Typology report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a "family farm is any farm where the majority of the business is owned by the operator and individuals related to the operator, including through blood, marriage, or adoption."
Although 97 percent of U.S. farms are family owned, "64 percent of all vegetable sales and 66 percent of all dairy sales come from the 3 percent of farms that are large or very large family farms," according to the USDA.
North Dakotans don't want their state to help increase that 3 percent by allowing corporate farms to push out small farmers.