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Omdahl: Measure 1 Would Shift Farm Policy

By Staff | Apr 15, 2016

North Dakota has had a romance with family farming since the Homestead Act of 1862 when the federal government gave 160-acre plots to anyone who would farm them.

We often think that all of the protections of rural agriculture have come from the national government because it offers significant financial support to farmers through crop insurance, trade protection for sugar growers, and a variety of subsidies scattered throughout the bureaucracy.

In the process, we have overlooked the fact that North Dakota has pieced together a significant series of programs to keep farmers on the land, community institutions viable and main streets healthy.

Starting with the 1919 session of the Legislature, the Bank of North Dakota and the State Mill & Elevator were created to protect farmers from exploitation by chain banks and milling companies.

For decades, the state ran a hail insurance program to help farmers cope with destruction of crops by nature.

The school land fund was used to underwrite mortgages for farmers. Farm residences and other improvements have been exempt from the property tax.

A more significant benefit has been a property tax system that results in farm and ranch land being assessed at less than half of the market value while city property owners keep paying a full load.

When it comes to sales tax, the rate on new and used machinery has been consistently lower than the general levy paid for consumer goods.

In 1932, the voters outlawed corporate farming to protect farming by families. The voters reaffirmed their support for this legislation in 1968 and 1974.

In spite of all of the state efforts, North Dakota has still witnessed a slow decline of the farm population and with it the boarding up of main street businesses, consolidation of church parishes, decline in medical services and grouping of schools just to get a football team. Depopulation would have been worse without these benefits for farmers.

The measure on the upcoming June ballot would open the anti-corporation law to permit corporate ownership of milk-cow and pig operations, with minimums established at 50 milk cows and 500 hogs.

The need to expand corporate farming is questionable since present law already permits family corporations to build sizeable facilities, such as the 6,000-hog facility planned near Buffalo.

Proponents of the measure have stated that the sole purpose for creating the exemption is to attract investment dollars. This means that nonfarm out-of-state investors would become an integral part of North Dakota agriculture.

There are too many nonfarm out-of-state investors already, bidding the price of land up beyond the resources of local farmers. Farmers are buying land for cropping and grazing while investors are buying for speculation.

My brother left 320 acres of land that was sold at auction for $1.8 million. Several weeks after the sale, the purchaser showed up from Illinois to check on the land he had bought sight unseen.

When it was suggested to him that he would never amortize his investment with ordinary cropping, he shrugged his shoulders and said “Well, I sort of invest around the country.” He was buying for speculation.

Federal and state farm programs have been based on the premise that family farming is more than a matter of pure economics, that there is social value to preserving family farms, local businesses, churches, schools and community.

Corporate investors will make decisions based on the bottom line and not on the best interests or social values of North Dakota rural communities.

Adoption of Measure No. 1 would mean a shift in the North Dakota farm policy that has prevailed since the founding of the state.

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