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Viewpoint: North Dakota can do better than Gov. Doug Burgum’s ‘Farm Freedom’ plan

I wholeheartedly disagree with Burgum’s argument that corporate farming will benefit family farmers and ranchers.

Mark Watne
Contributed / Mark Watne
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In a recent letter, Gov. Doug Burgum touted his plan to blow holes in North Dakota’s corporate farming law. I wholeheartedly disagree with Burgum’s argument that corporate farming will benefit family farmers and ranchers. But I’m even more disappointed that Burgum is using false and misleading talking points to support his plan.

Burgum has repeatedly said that the current law does not allow two unrelated farmers to partner with each other. That is simply not true. North Dakota law allows two unrelated farmers to partner with each other through general partnerships, limited partnerships, LLPs, LLLPs, and cooperatives. In fact, the current law even allows unrelated family corporations to farm or ranch together through any partnership structure. If farmers in North Dakota want to pool their resources, they can, and they do.

Burgum later criticizes the law’s existing exemption for farmer-owned cooperatives, saying that it requires at least five adults to form a co-op. Again, Burgum is trying to paint the picture that his plan is about helping a couple of local farmers come together and start a small operation. His talking points might be politically convenient, but what Burgum is really after is allowing big business to come in and own farms in the state.

The legislation Burgum refers to is House Bill 1371. That legislation removes cattle feedlots, swine, dairy and poultry production from the definition of farming and ranching. The bill would allow any corporation, no matter how large, to own feedlots or hog, dairy and poultry farms in the state. The bill does not require that corporate shareholders are farmers. It does not limit the number of shareholders. The bill is not about helping two local farmers partner together – it is about helping big business.

So, why would Burgum want to mislead North Dakotans about his so-called “Farm Freedom” plan? That is probably because he knows North Dakota voters don’t support the change he’s after. In 2015, the Legislature passed a similar exemption for hog and dairy farms. When that measure appeared on the ballot, voters rejected it with a 76% “No” vote.

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North Dakota’s corporate farming law has protected family farms and ranches for 90 years. The law has evolved during that time, allowing family members to incorporate, and allowing multiple family farms to utilize partnership structures. The law protects family farmers from competing with monopolistic corporations who want to control the entire supply chain. It prevents meatpackers from owning feedlots and pork companies from owning hog barns. It keeps production in the hands of family farmers and ranchers.

I agree with Burgum that new soybean crush plants create opportunities for livestock development. But we can’t keep ignoring our state’s lack of processing capacity. In 2021, only 12,300 head of cattle and 3,700 hogs were commercially slaughtered in North Dakota. If we truly want to help family farmers and ranchers add value to their operations, we should focus on creating new markets for them. In a state flush with cash, we should make smart investments to build out supply chains. We should also build healthier local conversations about livestock and value-added agriculture development.

Gov. Burgum’s plan to help family farmers is to help corporate agriculture. I think we can do a lot better than that.

Mark Watne is president of North Dakota Farmers Union, the state’s largest farm organization.

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