- Associated Press - Thursday, March 5, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota’s farmers and ranchers are at odds over a so-called “ham-and-cheese bill” that would exempt pork and dairy operations from the state’s eight-decades-old anti-corporate farming law.

The measure, one of the most contentious non-oil related bills considered by lawmakers this session, is intended to revitalize dairy and swine farms after years of decline, supporters said. Opponents believe the current law blocks unfair competition, and changing it even slightly will be an invitation for big, out-of-state corporations to set up operations in North Dakota.

The Republican-led Senate in February voted 27-18 to approve the legislation. Testimony taken by the House Agriculture Committee on Thursday mirrored that taken by the Senate a month earlier. Farmers and ranchers from across the state packed the Capitol’s biggest meeting room to testify on the measure on both occasions.

The legislation likely will be debated by the full House sometime next week, said Dennis Johnson, R-Devils Lake, chairman of the agriculture committee.

The bill would allow non-family farm corporations to own or lease agricultural land as long as the operations don’t take up more than 640 acres, or one square mile.

Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, called the legislation “a fundamental change to North Dakota’s system of family agriculture.”

Watne, whose group has about 40,000 members, said “agriculture is best left in the hands of individual entrepreneurs, who own the land and animals.”

North Dakota’s anti-corporate farming law dates back to 1932, when it was put on the ballot as an initiated measure and approved by voters. It now allows corporations with as many as 15 shareholders to own farms or ranches, as long as the shareholders are related.

Eight other states have laws restricting corporate farming, though all allow exemptions for some livestock operations, said Republican Sen. Terry Wanzek, who farms near Jamestown and is the bill’s primary sponsor.

Wanzek and state Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said passing the legislation would improve farmers’ access to capital from corporations. Allowing the exemptions would revive the swine and pork industries and help fuel other agriculture business, such as feed and fertilizer, they said.

“We can’t afford to do nothing,” Wanzek said.

Federal agriculture data show the number of dairy farms in North Dakota has decreased from about 350 in 2002 to 91 at present. The number of dairy cows in the state has dropped from 40,000 to 18,000 during that time, according to the National Agriculture Statistics Service.

Swine numbers have also declined from about 280,000 in 1995 to about 139,000 in 2014, data show.

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