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Pinke: Freedom to operate: Yes, allow second cousins into farm corporations

The North Dakota Legislature is considering opening family farm corporations to include second cousins.

Are you against corporate farming? In 2016, 75 percent of North Dakotans voted against exempting dairy and swine operations from corporate ownership laws, instead sticking with the family farming law that’s been intact since 1932. Eight other states — Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Wisconsin — also have corporate farm laws on the books. North Dakota’s law is the most restrictive and the only one that doesn’t allow an exemption for livestock. Now legislators are trying to at least open up the limiting law to allow extended family into farm businesses.

Many have fought to keep the “family farm” going in North Dakota, but does a more restrictive corporate farming law champion the same cause and grow our agriculture industry? I turned to 2017 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

North Dakota has 29,000 farms, 984,000 beef cows, 147,000 pigs, 70,000 sheep and 15,500 dairy cows. The average farm is 1,308 acres.

South Dakota has 31,000 farms with 1.8 million beef cows, 1.5 million pigs, 4.1 million turkeys, 260,000 sheep, and 119,000 dairy cows. The average farm is 1,397 acres.

Minnesota has 73,200 farms that average 354 acres. The state includes nearly 60 million chickens, 42 million turkeys, 8.5 million pigs, 455,000 dairy cows, 365,000 beef cows, and even 25,000 meat goats and 14,000 dairy goats.

Iowa has nearly 87,000 farms operating an average 351 acres. The state is home to 970,000 beef cows, 220,000 dairy cows, 22.8 million pigs, and 12 million turkeys. Iowa’s farming law is far less restrictive than North Dakota’s in terms of who can be a part of a family farming corporation. It also requires 60 percent of a farming corporation’s income to come from farming.

Based on the numbers, North Dakota lags far behind nearby states. We need to help grow agriculture.

Rep. Aaron McWilliams, R-Hillsboro, has introduced House Bill 1388 in the North Dakota legislature, which would allow second cousins into family farming corporations. The bill says: “Each shareholder or member must be related to each of the other shareholders or members within one of the following degrees of kinship or affinity: parent, son, daughter, stepson, stepdaughter, grandparent, grandson, granddaughter, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, nephew, niece, great-grandparent, great-grandchild, first cousin, second cousin or the spouse of a person so related.”

My husband and I own a lumberyard, started by his parents, and home-building business. You don’t have to be a family member to partner or invest in our small business. But you must be a family member to be a part of a family farming business. North Dakotans have an antiquated view of what a family farm should or should not be.

A majority of North Dakotans by their vote in 2016 believe family farms should remain with generations of immediate family working the land and caring for the livestock. It’s picturesque and accurate. In the U.S., 97 percent of farms are family owned, meaning majority owned by family members. But I think farms and ranches should have the freedom to operate, which includes deciding who partners and invests in the business, just like I can do in my small non-farm business.

Two of my dear friends are technically my fourth cousins if I’ve done my family tree math correctly. They are like brothers to me. Our great-great-grandfathers immigrated together from Norway and our extended families still live within miles of each other. As of right now, I couldn’t form a farm or ranch partnership with them. We need to allow exemptions and fewer restrictions on the farming corporation laws in North Dakota.

I love the family farm. But families are smaller than they used to be. Farms need more capital. If amending North Dakota’s law to include second cousins helps keep one farm in business, let’s do it.

If change requires baby steps, this is one. More changes are necessary if we want to continue our livelihood and the state’s largest industry, agriculture. No matter what you think a farm should or shouldn’t be, farmers should have the freedom to operate the same way any non-farm business does, with the partners and investors they need to be successful.

In 2019, maybe that would be second cousins for a few North Dakota farms.