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Protecting or Restricting? North Dakota’s Anti-corporate Farming Law in Jeopardy

News | January 17th, 2023

By Laura Simmons

laurasimmons2025@u.northwestern.edu

Governor Doug Burgum called for the removal of the anti-corporate farming law during the State of the State Address.

The anti-corporate farming law is a contentious topic. Some believe it is holding back North Dakota’s farmers and ranchers. Others believe the anti-corporate farming law is protecting local farmers and the environment.

“I urge this body to change the long downward trajectory of animal agriculture in North Dakota and do away with this archaic law as it applies to ownership of animal agriculture operations, including poultry,” Governor Burgum said in the State of the State Address. “Let’s take the handcuffs off our ranchers and livestock producers.”

North Dakota leads the country in many crop categories such as spring wheat, durum wheat, canola, and more, it is falling behind other states in cattle, milk cows, hogs, and pigs, according to Governor Burgum.

Burgum said he blames the anti-corporate farming law, saying that other states like South Dakota allow non-related parties to pool capital for animal agriculture operations.

“We know our farmers and ranchers can compete with anyone, anywhere, anytime, if they’re given a level playing field,” Governor Burgum said. “Right now, the field is so uneven when it comes to capital access and capital formation.”

Dakota Rural Action Representative Kathy Tyler said getting rid of the anti-corporate farming law was the worst thing South Dakota has ever done. She said it’s a good thing North Dakota is behind South Dakota in corporate farming.

South Dakota repealed the anti-corporate farming law on August 19, 2003 when the courts declared it to be unconstitutional in South Dakota Farm Bureau Inc. v. Hazeltine.

“It's horrible what [the hog industry has] done,” Tyler said. “There are no small hog farmers in South Dakota. There are no small dairies in South Dakota, and when you lose your small dairies you lose small farms. Corporate aid pushes small farmers out in distressed communities. Keep your anti-corporate law please.”

Since 2003, the number of large hog farms and dairy farms has increased while the number of smaller farms has decreased, according to the “2021 Economic Contribution Study of South Dakota Agriculture.” For example, in 2002 there were almost 200 hog farms with 50 to 99 head. In 2017, that number was almost zero. There’s a similar trend with the dairy industry. In 2002 there were 316 farms with 50 to 99 head compared to only 80 farms in 2017.

Tyler said although corporations are seen as an economic advantage, she doesn’t think that’s a strong enough reason to have them.

“Is it a good economic advantage when you have a dairy of 5000 cows that hires maybe 30 people and that dairy has taken a livelihood away from 40 families?” Tyler asked. “Is money more important than a personal livelihood?”

The waste from hog farms is also polluting South Dakota’s waterways with the bacteria escherichia coli, or E. coli, according to Tyler. She said she lives next to a large pig farm, Big Sioux Re, LLC, that has 6500 sows and 125,000 babies a year. The operation creates about 1 million gallons of poop a year. The liquid manure is injected into the ground. When it rains, the manure runs off into creeks, contaminating them.

Tyler said she doesn’t know of any creeks near her that are safe to swim in.

According to the “2022 South Dakota Integrated Report for Surface Water Quality Assessment” only 21.8% of the streams they assessed supported all their assigned beneficial uses, which includes irrigation, fish and wildlife propagation, recreation and stock watering. The streams that didn’t support recreational use were primarily caused by E. coli contamination from livestock and wildlife.

Karl Rockeman, director of water quality for the ND department of environmental quality, said he thinks North Dakota waterways will be adequately protected against E. coli regardless of whether North Dakota keeps the anti-corporate farming law or not.

“I think the laws we have now are sufficient to protect against E. coli from manure application,” Rockeman said. “The E. Coli in the manure doesn't know any different who owns it or not. The laws apply equally, regardless of ownership type. I wouldn't see that changing based on the anti-corporate farming law.”

Rockeman said the regulations for animal feeding operations are guided by federal law, meaning there are lots of commonalities between states. However, he said North Dakota has extra regulations including odor setbacks and inspection of groundwater. Furthermore, the department of environmental quality conducts regular inspections of large livestock facilities, according to Rockeman.

“There's a whole range of axes depending on the severity of the violation,” Rockeman said. “Our goal is to get them back into compliance and so we provide information to help them do that. But in the case of severe violation, we have rules that allow us to take enforcement action, appoint penalties and order them to cease activity that may be harming the environment.”

Former North Dakota Commissioner of Agriculture Sarah Vogel said the last time there was a similar proposal to get rid of the anti-corporate farming law, it was referred and rejected by 76% by North Dakota voters in 2016.

A referral is when citizens repeal a law passed by the legislature. It requires thousands of people to sign a petition to get the law on the ballot to repeal it.

However, in order for a referral to happen, the law must first be passed. This would take the majority of votes in the House of Representatives and Senate and then that it be signed by the governor.

“I have a feeling that many legislators; not just democratic, nonpartisan legislators; are not going to be very happy about opening up North Dakota to competition from livestock corporate pigs,” Vogel said.

Earlier this year, Vogel said Attorney General Drew Wrigely needed to enforce the anti-corporate farming law by verifying that Bill Gates’ North Dakota land purchase through the Red River Trust is legal. To this day, the trust document has still not been released. Instead an affidavit was signed by trustee Peter Headley. Vogel said an affidavit is not enough.

Headley is the head of agriculture investment management for Cascade Asset Management, which handles billions of dollars in investments for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Trust and Bill Gates, according to Vogel in her essay “Why, Oh Why Has Attorney General Drew Wrigley Been So Lame on Enforcement of the North Dakota Anti-Corporate Farming Law?”

Without the trust, Vogel cannot verify that Bill Gates is the sole beneficiary. Instead, Gates’ corporate executives could be hiding land purchases by corporations such as Cascade Investments behind a facade of a trust, Vogel wrote in her essay.

Vogel wrote that repealing the anti-corporate farming law would open North Dakota’s land to investments by corporations like Cascade Investments.

“I began to believe that the sketchy investigation by the Attorney General’s office wasn’t because [of] incompetence but rather was due to a conflict of interest,” Vogel wrote in her essay. “North Dakotans all know that Attorney General Wrigley owes his position to an appointment by Governor Doug Burgum, who sold his software company to Microsoft [Gates is the co-founder of Microsoft] and was a Microsoft officer prior to becoming Governor.”

The High Plains Reader reached out to Attorney General Drew Wrigley for comment but did not receive an answer.

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