North Dakota voters have rejected a measure that would have permitted corporations to own and to operate dairy and pork farms of up to 640 acres. 75.7 percent of voters opposed Measure 1.
North Dakota is one of only nine states that prohibit or limit corporate farming. A 1932 law has long forbidden nonfamily corporate ownership of farms. But in March of last year, the state legislature passed a bill that loosened restrictions for dairy and pork farms only.
The North Dakota Farmers Union opposed the law and gathered more than 20,000 signatures to force a statewide vote on Measure 1. The group spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat the measure, far more than the several thousand committed by the dairy and pork interests. According to its president, Mark Watne, about 1,000 people participated in its campaign, making 90,000 phone calls and knocking on 5,000 doors.
The measure’s victorious opponents contend that the law would have invited large corporations to buy land, creating competition that would harm family farmers. They add that the measure could have threatened the North Dakota’s values and heritage. The state’s politics have long been distinctive. It was the site of the People’s Party (the Populists) organizing during the late 19th century, and the Bank of North Dakota, the only state-owned institution of its kind, was founded in 1919.
Watne argues that family farms are more efficient than corporate farms. “Farm families tend to train the next generation, to take care of the land,” he says. “Corporations reward shareholder profits, which may or may not be in the long-term interest of the land.” Allowing corporations to own land causes consolidation, and “creates a competition level for family farms” that can be “seen in other states, where there is a decrease in family farms with consolidation.” If farmers want to cooperate, he said, they do not need the corporate business model, and can instead form a partnership. Farmers might also organize cooperatives.
In addition to their economic benefits, Watne believes family farms promote healthy communities. Family farmers “tend to live in or near communities where the land is located,” he says. “They’re part of society.”