Reuters — North Dakotans are voting Tuesday in a referendum to repeal a law enacted last year that changed decades of family-farming rules in the state by allowing corporations to own and operate dairy and hog farms.
The North Dakota Farmers Union and other groups that collected signatures to put the referendum on the ballot say family farmers cannot compete with large agricultural firms with no ties to the communities where they operate.
Corporate and foreign control of U.S. farmland has been a hot-button issue in several major agricultural states in recent years as a multi-year commodities boom that began in 2007 has attracted non-farm investors.
State laws prohibiting corporations and foreign entities from owning U.S. farmland complicated a $4.7 billion acquisition in 2013 of U.S. pork producer Smithfield Foods by China’s Shuanghui International (all figures US$). The deal ultimately closed.
This February, a U.S. district judge issued an injunction barring Nebraska officials from enforcing the state’s ban on farmland ownership by corporations.
The North Dakota groups are campaigning for a “No” vote on the referendum, rejecting Senate Bill 2351, which was signed into law in March 2015 by Republican Governor Jack Dalrymple.
The referendum is the only measure on the state’s primary ballot, which is dominated by a Republican fight for the governor’s office.
Supporters of the bill want a “Yes” vote to approve the law.
They argue that dairy and pork operations are on the decline in the state and cannot survive without corporations that can finance expensive equipment and compete regionally, according to the Yes for Dairies + Pork Producers website.
North Dakota, with about 740,000 residents, has a heavily agricultural economy, producing grains and oilseeds.
It is one of nine states that have laws limiting corporate farming, according to the National Agricultural Law Center. The North Dakota law, which dates to the Great Depression, says farming or ranching companies must have no more than 15 shareholders or members who must belong to the same family, to a distance of first cousins.
Senate Bill 2351, which was supported by Governor Dalrymple, would exempt dairy and swine production from the corporate farming prohibition.
UPDATE, June 15, 2016: Unofficial results posted on the North Dakota state government website Tuesday night put the final vote count from the statewide ballot measure at 98,677 votes for “No” and 31,679 votes for “Yes.”
— Reporting for Reuters by Fiona Ortiz and Karl Plume in Chicago.