One of North Dakota’s Biggest Proponents of the Corporate Farming Ban May Have Inadvertently Triggered Its Demise

A sign for the Cannonball Ranch near the site of the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Tom Stromme/Bismarck Tribune

Back in 2016, as political extremists demonstrated violently against the Dakota Access Pipeline the owner of the historic Cannonball Ranch – through which the pipeline was constructed – found himself fed up with the situation and sold the land to the company building the pipeline. He continues to ranch there, but the pipeline company now owns the property.

At the time Sarah Vogel, a long time liberal activists who once upon the time was elected Agriculture Commissioner as a Democrat, called the transaction “sketchy” citing North Dakota’s ban on corporate farming. Corporations formed among people without familial relations are barred by state law from owning farm or ranch land, a state of affairs Democrats have long credited with protecting family farming in our state even as the number of family farms here has plummeted.

But Vogel may be wishing she hadn’t made a stink about the issue.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, fulfilling his obligations to enforce state law, has filed suit against the pipeline company challenging their ownership of the property under state law. Rather than knuckle under the pipeline company has countered arguing that a) they aren’t violating the law since the property continues to be used for ranching by the previous owner under some sort of a rental or lease agreement and b) North Dakota’s corporate farming ban is unconstitutional anyway.

It’s this latter argument that’s the most interesting:

Dakota Access argues the lawsuit should be dismissed because the Cannonball Ranch continues to operate as a ranch, with the pipeline company leasing it to the previous owners.

The company also argues that North Dakota’s corporate farming law violates clauses of the U.S. Constitution related to interstate commerce and equal protection of the law.

I hope the constitutional question comes before the courts. While the corporate farming ban is politically popular in North Dakota – an effort by the Legislature to even loosen the law a bit for dairy and swine operations was defeated soundly on the ballot, albeit after little in the way of an affirmative campaign for it from lawmakers – it’s an odious affront to the concept of property rights.

The corporate farming ban is about blocking competition from new business models. The restrictions on land sales to non-profits are intended to address fears over conservation groups or similar interests competing in the real estate markets.

This sort of parochialism may be politically popular, but it’s hard to imagine how it can withstand constitutional scrutiny. But then again, anything seems possible in the court system.

If this challenge to the pipeline company’s ownership of the land, coming as it does after Vogel’s agitating about it, does result in North Dakota’s corporate farming ban getting struck down it would be a deeply ironic turn of events.

Perhaps a fitting end to Vogel’s largely ineffectual career in North Dakota politics.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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