“Each year in nearly every part of the country, swaths of farmland are turned over as yet another family farm is pushed out by tightening profit margins, rigged markets and the ever-constricting power of a few corporations,” reads the opening sentence of an op/ed written by musician Willie Nelson and former Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Sarah Vogel.
The intent of their missive is to buttress the case for Measure 1, a referendum of a law passed by the Legislature to ease slightly for swine and dairy farmer’s North Dakota’s restrictions on corporate farming. Voters will be casting their ballots on the issue next week, and the referendum will likely be successful given that the North Dakota Farmer’s Union – which organized the referendum – is essentially campaigning in a vacuum.
There has been no organized campaign from the Legislature or anyone else to back the change to the law.
But the likely success of this referendum is not reason to overlook a gaping hole in the case made by Nelson and Vogel, which is that North Dakota’s corporate farming ban hasn’t stopped the downward trend in the number of family farms in North Dakota.
Because they’re right about that. The number of farms are on the decline. According to the USDA’s most recent Census of Agriculture, from 1982 to 2012 the number of farms in North Dakota decreased by more than 15 percent.
The reasoning Vogel and Nelson have for this is, for the most part, born of the sort of economic illiteracy that is all too common in certain political factions. But it is happening, and the fact that it is happening despite our state’s draconian restrictions on corporate farming is an indictment of their argument.
The corporate farming ban hasn’t helped. It has accomplished very little. If anything, it has only served to hinder the ability of existing farmers to stanch the decline in farms by denying them the ability to invite investment into their businesses from non-family members.
Corporate farming bans are an anachronism of a by-gone age clung to by hidebound political demagogues like Vogel and the North Dakota Farmer’s Union who, at this point, seem to be defending them only because of a sort of political inertia.
Maybe a ban on corporate farming was a factor in protecting North Dakota’s interests back during the Hoover administration, during the Great Depression, when it was created. I’m doubtful, but that’s a moot point now.
What the corporate farming ban is today is a hindrance to farmers of all sizes who are desperately trying to compete in an increasingly globalized economy.
It’s high time we took these figurative handcuffs off of what is, historically, North Dakota’s largest and most important industry.