Dairy, hogs deserve a new chance in North Dakota

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Posted 5/24/16 (Tue)

Passing Dreams
By Steve Andrist

I can remember when the Dhuyvetters over at Noonan put away their milking machines for the last time.
Theirs was the last dairy farm in Divide County, but milking just wasn’t working for them any more.
So they made the reasonable and logical decision to sell the cows and shut down the operation.
It was a sad day, but a sign of the times, a forced recognition of the realities of modern-day agriculture.
The glory days were long gone.
No longer did every township hold 15 or 20 farm families, each with some laying hens and fryers, a few Herefords, a couple milkers in the barn near the separator, and a section or two of crop.
There is virtually nothing in North Dakota agriculture that is the same today as it was in those days.
The size of farms kept growing and growing; the number of farmers kept falling.
The Dhuyvetters aren’t the only North Dakotans to give up on dairy.
Today there are only 90 or so dairy farms left in the entire state, a tiny fraction of what there once were.
An unattractive lifestyle and particularly high capital requirements forced the hand of most.
Hog farms have faced a similar fate.
Last year the North Dakota Legislature tried to do something about reviving the dairy and swine industries in the state.
A law was passed and signed by the governor to provide a narrow exemption to the state’s anti-corporate farming law by allowing a corporation or LLC to own or lease up to one section of land to operate a dairy or hog production facility.
It became known as the “ham and cheese” bill, but the rest of the anti-corporate farming law remained unchanged.
Still, certain interests, led by the North Dakota Farmers Union, view the law as a threat to family farms. And so they are asking voters, in Measure 1 on the June 14 Primary Election ballot, to overturn the decision of the Legislature.
The principal reason stated by opponents of the Legislature’s action is the old foot-in-the-door argument.
That reasoning suggests that if we allow one exemption to the anti corporate farming law, the flood gates will be opened and many more exemption proposals will follow.
If they do, opponents contend, we will soon see the end of family farms.
It’s a flawed argument.
First, as noted, there is nothing about family farming today that resembles the family farm of my grandfather’s era, or yours.
Second, there is no evidence -- only fear -- that “ham and cheese” will lead to attempts to water down the anti-corporate farming law.
It hasn’t happened in other states -- North Dakota is the only one left that doesn’t have some type of corporate farming exemption for hog and dairy operations.
To be sure, North Dakota and North Dakotans continue to have a love affair with family farms.
If there was any evidence of the ruin of family farms, no one -- not the Legislature, not the governor, not the voter -- would support the dairy and swine exemption.
Meanwhile, there is clear and convincing evidence of the ruin of family dairy and hog farms, whose decline has made them all but irrelevant to North Dakota agriculture and the state’s economy.
Rather, the evidence is that with the exemptions, the swine and dairy industries in the state could possibly regain some relevance.
If one or two or even a half dozen swine or dairy operations would result, they would bring new jobs and a new tax base and the potential for North Dakotans to consume North Dakota ham and cheese.
And still it would reduce our farmland base by just one or two or a half dozen sections of land.
For these reasons, a “yes” vote on Measure 1 on June 14 would be good for the state of agriculture without any serious threat to family farms.
How to vote
Because Measure 1 is a referral of a bill approved by the Legislature, a “yes” vote means you agree with the Legislature’s decision.
A “no” vote means you want to overturn the legislative decision.