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North Dakota farmers still navigate corporate land-ownership policy maze

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Mike Moen

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(Prairie News Service) North Dakota's farming landscape is seeing policy shifts dealing with corporate ownership of agricultural interests. Now, there's fresh debate at the federal level. 

Earlier this year, the Legislature loosened restrictions under the state's longstanding anti-corporate-farming law. The changes, which followed lengthy debate, focus on livestock operations

In Congress, the National Family Farm Coalition is among the groups calling for passage of the Farmland for Farmers Act, which would restrict the amount of farmland large corporations can own. 

Ben Vig, who farms small grains in east-central North Dakota, said he's happy to see the federal proposal, noting the broader corporate influence within agriculture these days. 

"The idea that we have checks and balances when we purchase our food -- well, sometimes, the corporations own everything and we're subjected to what they put as a price," Vig observed.

He's referring to corporate dominance in such areas as meat processing. And foreign ownership of U.S. ag property also has emerged as a concern; the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports foreign investors hold about 40 million acres of American farmland. 

The North Dakota Farmers Union has said it doesn't think the federal bill would overlap with the state-level changes, but it does support the Congressional efforts.

Groups representing large ag firms have criticized recent federal attempts to establish market fairness, warning they would harm consumers. But Vig said giving the little guy more "wiggle room" to operate keeps farming communities thriving.

"And we still have people taking care of the land or taking care of small-town infrastructure," Vig pointed out. "Whether we're serving on a township board, or serving on a church board and a school board, we still know who the neighbors are."

Corporate influence within agriculture also has led to concerns about the impact on land prices. 

The Farmland for Farmers Act was introduced by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey. And separate bipartisan efforts are focused on foreign investors. 

At the state level, North Dakota got attention for the livestock-related ownership changes, but lawmakers also advanced legislation to restrict foreign governments from acquiring farmland.