GUEST COLUMN: Principle v. Pragmatism: DRC’s position on the NDFU Amendments to HB 1371

Following an abrupt reversal by the North Dakota Farmers Union (NDFU) on HB 1371 (the euphemistically named Freedom to Farm bill) after it had offered amendments to the bill, I was reminded of the philosophical dilemma of pragmatism v. principle as was illustrated by an old Calvin and Hobbs cartoon. I had always admired the NDFU’s principled stance against corporate farming. In 1932 the NDFU had won support for an initiated measure it placed on the ballot that prohibited corporations from owning farmland. It passed with a 56 percent vote margin. In the last 90 years, NDFU has been a staunch defender of the corporate farming law with the 75-25% win on the referral of the 2015 legislature’s amendments to the law.

While the bill was being considered in the house agriculture committee, NDFU President Watne penned a scathing letter to the editor of the Fargo Forum on Jan. 22, 2023, that reiterated NDFU’s long held and principled stance against any changes to the corporate farming law. A month later, before the bill was considered by the house, NDFU initiated amendments to the bill that it said made the very bad bill better while preserving farmer control over corporate livestock enterprises. In a bit of legislative legerdemain, the bill removed corporate livestock enterprises from the definition of farming thereby exempting them from the corporate farming law. In a further confounding statement, NDFU said it would remain neutral on the bill although it contained the amendments it proffered.

The abrupt reversal in NDFU’s position, was enough to give supporters of the corporate farming law whiplash. In the month between Watne’s letter and NDFU’s reversal, Watne and NDFU Government Relations Director Perdue, called in the NDFU’s Board of Governors for a discussion about possible amendments to the bill. They argued that NDFU had to amend the bill in order to make it less harsh and more palpable to NDFU’s position in favor of farmer majority ownership of corporate livestock enterprises. Because NDFU’s reversal was so abrupt, Joel Heitkamp had both Watne and Perdue on his News and Views radio show on KFGO on Feb. 22, 2023 to explain the reasons for the amendments among them support from commodity groups, the governor, the agriculture commissioner, and livestock groups for the original bill.

Because Dakota Resource Council (DRC) has had long-standing resolutions against weakening of the corporate farming law (1990 and 1994) and reaffirmed its support of the law at its annual meeting in 2022, we were left in a quandary as to what we should do in regard to the amended and passed HB 1371 as it crossed over to the senate. I visited with several friends who are active in NDFU – either as county presidents or board members – to discuss the amended bill. They all stressed that the political environment had changed significantly since 2016 when the NDFU won a referral of the livestock and dairy amendments to the corporate farming law enacted by the 2015 legislature. They further emphasized that the NDFU amendments preserved farmer ownership and control of corporate livestock enterprises allowed in the amended bill.

I also visited with former Agriculture Commissioner Sarah Vogel about her impressions of the amended HB 1371. She expressed her thoughts in her blog post, and her thoughts were as follows: “I defer to the NDFU leaders on the best way to defeat HB 1371 in its original form, and I’ll submit testimony when the time comes. My suggestions will propose that amendments be drafted to: 1) Ensure that the Secretary of State and the Attorney General have the staff and budget to enforce the law against anyone (big or small) who might want to evade the complexities of the compromises in amended HB 1371. 2) Update the reporting system for the officials who are this law’s “boots on the ground”: the county Registers of Deeds. 3) Follow Minnesota’s lead and limit trusts to nonprofit family farm trusts. 4) Improve the private right of enforcement provisions of our anti-corporate farming law, as a check and a balance against situations where the Attorney General fails to enforce the law. “

We called for a meeting of DRC Ag Committee and the DRC Executive Committee to discuss what position DRC should take in regard to the amended HB 1371. I took a politically-pragmatic position that we couldn’t afford to alienate the NDFU, that we should support recognize the changed political environment, and like the NDFU remain neutral on the amended HB 1371. Members of both committees were adamant that we should stand strong against any efforts to weaken the corporate farming law, even if they were negotiated by the Farmers Union. In addition, many members expressed concern that if this bill is passed that it will open the door for future attempts to weaken the corporate farming law even more. And lastly, DRC leaders expressed concern regarding North Dakota’s ability to enforce the law and protect the environment due to systematic lack of enforcement by the state government and a lack of full-time employees at different state agencies like the Department of Environmental Quality, Attorney General’s Office, Agriculture Department, and the Secretary of State.

In conclusion, DRC’s stance on Amended 1371 is that we will continue opposing it in its amended form. In addition, we will also point at future hearings the need for more staffers at various state agencies to properly enforce the law. In summary DRC’s stance will be the following: 1) Oppose HB 1371 as amended. 2) State that if passed, there is a clear need for more FTEs at various state agencies like Secretary of State, Department of Environmental Quality, Agriculture Department, and the Attorney General’s Office to properly enforce the law.

After the DRC Ag Committee and the DRC Executive Committee meetings, I had to reflect on my politically-pragmatic position on the amended HB 1371 in lieu of my own research on the impacts of industrialized farming in general, and corporate farming in particular. The conclusion of my guest column in ND XPlains is as follows: “The rural social science research literature on the impacts of industrialized agriculture in general, and corporate farming in particular, is conclusive about its detrimental impacts on rural communities. The bulk of evidence indicates that public concern about these detrimental impacts is warranted. I urge legislators to vote No on HB 1371.” I’ve come back to taking a principled – rather than a pragmatic – position on the amended bill. I submitted my testimony on March 21 to that effect:

Curtis Stofferahn, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus and Rural Sociologist, the University of North Dakota submitted the above column on HB 1371

Tyler Axness
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