A recent vote to protect local farming in North Dakota brings the age-old conflict between small town America and corporate behemoths to the forefront.
On June 14th, 2016, North Dakotians voted 3:1 to uphold state laws which would protect their quintessentially American way of life, as CommonDreams explains. The decision repealed Senate Bill 2351, which proposed that “a domestic corporation or limited liability company” could lease up to 640 acres of land for dairy and pig farming. Proponents of the bill included the incumbent state governor and many other leading figures in local politics, who believed this measure would encourage growth in the state’s agricultural sector.
However, members of the North Dakota Farmers Union (NDFU) opposed the bill, believing that corporate farms would outcompete local farmers and break up local communities. The NDFU’s petition to put this issue on the June 2016 ballot garnered over 21 thousand signatures, and following an impassioned campaign featuring op-eds by local farmers, North Dakotians decisively vetoed the bill.
The American Dream, Divided
North Dakota is a deep-red state, voting Republican for the majority of presidential elections held since its formation, and predicted to do so again this November, according to 270 to Win. Yet in this instance, North Dakotians were strongly in favor of government regulations on business behavior — which seems to go against core Republican principles.
However, business regulation is a philosophical question, while farming is the everyday reality for a larger than average portion of the North Dakotian population. In 2012, around 0.2% of the state population worked in farming, fishing, and forestry (compared to the national average of 0.05%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), and about 40% of North Dakotians live rurally, as the Center for Rural Health reports.
On the other hand, the success of large corporations is a clear-cut realization of the American Dream — the deeply ingrained notion that through hard work and ingenuity, anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and amass personal wealth, thereby snagging their slice of the American pie. This “work hard and prosper” mentality has manifested itself in a booming corporate climate: Forbes reports that over a quarter of the world’s largest companies are based in the USA, contributing billions of dollars to the economy as well as employing millions of Americans.
So, which side of the debate truly represents American ideals?
Local Farms For Local People
To North Dakota’s No Voters, locally-owned farms offer many benefits over those owned by remotely operated corporations. In a letter to Farm and Ranch Guide, North Dakotian Farmer Bob Finken cited the most significant upside: these farmers would be able to meet an increasing consumer demand for local food, benefitting both the community and the environment. In addition, family farmers have a vested interest in farming sustainably and protecting the land for future generations.
North Dakota Farmers’ Union president Mark Watne explained to In These Times: “Farm families tend to train the next generation, to take care of the land. Corporations reward shareholder profits, which may or may not be in the long-term interest of the land.”
Watne added that family farmers “tend to live in or near communities where the land is located. They’re part of society.” North Dakota’s dominant industry is agriculture, and was the first state to codify citizens’ “right to farm” in state law. By voting to block the bill, residents said they wanted to preserve their rural communities and farming, which are central to North Dakotian culture. Third generation farmer Laurie Wagner told The New York Times, “With corporate farming, they just don’t have the connections. They could buy up all the land, and it means nothing to them. They could make it impossible for people like us to compete.”
Keeping Up With The Competition
While small family farms clearly provide tangible benefits to their communities, proponents of Bill 2351 believe that the June 16th result may have financial repercussions for North Dakota.
Farming is an economically precarious industry for newcomers: in support of the bill, North Dakota Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring explained in the Bismark Tribune that “a dairy operation often needs to be milking 600 to 800 cows to break even, and a 1,600-head dairy operation takes several million dollars to start.” Excluding corporations from North Dakota’s farming industry means that only the wealthiest private individuals will be capable of funding new farms. This economic disadvantage to smaller farms could be exacerbated by existing laws, which limit the extent to which farms can join forces.
The agricultural sector could be in for more changes as it faces the rising tide of technological unemployment: while technological advances have improved farming yields, they also reduce the need for human workers. While North Dakota’s rejection of corporate farming has provided a certain degree of protection, farmers are under ever increasing pressure to cut labor costs in order to improve the already small profit margins they earn on their produce.
The rejection of Bill 2351 may not spare North Dakotian farmers from the effects of automation. However, by rallying their supporters, forcing a vote and democratically blocking changes to their state’s laws which don’t reflect the needs of local industry, North Dakotian farmers and their supporters have embodied the American spirit.
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(Image credit: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center/flickr)