- Associated Press - Thursday, June 2, 2016

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - The North Dakota Farm Bureau asked a federal judge Thursday to declare the state’s nearly century-old anti-corporate farming law unconstitutional.

The move comes less than two weeks before state residents vote on June 14 on whether to uphold lawmaker-approved exemptions to the law for hog and dairy operations.

The Farm Bureau’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Bismarck, said that the law approved by voters in 1932 restricts farmers from business tools they need to prosper, lowers the value of their operations and discriminates against residents of other states. Among the plaintiffs are a Wisconsin dairy farmer and a dairy company in that state that seeks to expand into North Dakota.

The law “interferes with the flow of interstate commerce by prohibiting any and all corporations organized under the laws of all other states from investing in North Dakota farming operations or from owning or leasing North Dakota farmland,” the lawsuit states.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, named as the defendant in the lawsuit, said Thursday he had not yet seen it, but that his office has defended the law in the past.

“And of course the constitution requires that I defend the statute this time as well, so that is what I will do,” Stenehjem said. “I can’t say a whole lot more because I don’t know what the complaint says.”

The North Dakota Legislature last year decided to allow non-family corporations to own hog and dairy operations, to boost those dying industries in the state. The North Dakota Farmers Union, which supports the anti-corporate farming law, successfully petitioned the changes to the June 14 primary election ballot, so residents can vote on whether to uphold those exemptions.

House Minority Leader Kenton Onstad, D-Parshall, a vocal opponent of relaxing the law, said he feared that making changes to it “probably weakens it in the eyes of the courts.”

State Farmers Union President Mark Watne, when asked recently about the possibility of a lawsuit, said, “we can go down that path if somebody wants to.”

“When has it ever been that citizens of a state can’t decide what their business climate looks like?” he said.

Only nine states have restrictions on corporate farming, and most allow exemptions for some livestock operations. Some other states that have had such laws challenged in the courts haven’t fared well: A corporate farming ban approved by South Dakota voters in 1998 was struck down as unconstitutional because it interfered with interstate commerce.

North Dakota Sen. Joe Miller, who farms crops near Park River and was a main sponsor of the hog and dairy exemptions, said one of the goals was to “keep the law intact without having a lawsuit that would throw open the door” to a constitutional challenge.

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Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/NicholsonBlake

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