What's holding back animal agriculture in North Dakota?
People in the livestock industry offer multiple reasons why North Dakota has fallen behind, with anti-corporate farming laws, a lack of ag processing, restrictive ordinances and the 'stigma' of livestock among them.
Advocates for animal agriculture in North Dakota hail Justin Quandt and the modern hog barns his family built near Oakes as an example of what is possible in the state.
The Quandts don’t own the hogs in their barns; they are owned by an “integrator” in South Dakota that pays the Quandts to house the pigs and provide the labor until the pigs are market weight. The integrator provides the feed — sometimes buying corn from the Quandts — and decides when to pick up pigs for market.
“Our duties are to keep the barn heated, cooled in the summer, pay the electricity bills, look for the sick ones to take care of, take care of the animal health, and then order the feed when we need more feed, and then he pays us the rent per pig space,” Quandt said.
But for more North Dakota farmers to take advantage of the opportunities that animal ag presents, Quandt says the industry needs to overcome the “stigma” associated with large scale hog barns and instead see the value in diversifying and using manure to promote soil health and save on fertilizer costs.
Quandt, who also raises cattle and farms with brothers and uncles near the South Dakota state line, gives a lot of credit to Amber Boeshans, the executive director of the North Dakota Livestock Alliance, with helping to navigate the process of getting the financing and permits needed to make the two 4,800 head barns possible.
Boeshans gives this assessment of animal agriculture in North Dakota:
“We’re about where South Dakota was 15 years ago.”
South Dakota has double the number of beef cattle that North Dakota has, and North Dakota has dropped out of the top 10 beef producing states, though some of that may be related to the 2021 drought that withered pastures in the state.
North Dakota is far behind South Dakota in the number of hogs and dairy cattle in the state.
South Dakota has more than 2 million hogs while North Dakota has just 148,000, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. North Dakota has just 15,000 milk cows while South Dakota has 170,000.
The North Dakota Livestock Alliance started in 2017 and promotes “responsibly growing all types of animal ag across the state,” Boeshans said as the group on Sept. 28 held an event in Fargo to promote raising pigs in the state.
But that growth has been slow to come and ag leaders in the state point to a variety of factors:
- Anti-corporate farming laws.
- Lack of livestock and dairy processing.
- Prohibitive local ordinances.
- Misconceptions about animal ag.
Anti-corporate farming laws
In an interview with Agweek at the 2022 Big Iron farm show at West Fargo, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said neighboring states are “clobbering us” because of North Dakota’s anti-corporate farming law.
Burgum said it’s obvious that it’s “not aptitude.” Instead, “it has to be red tape and regulation.”
But Burgum said creating a modern, efficient livestock operation requires significant capital and North Dakota’s anti-corporate farming law, now 90 years old, make that nearly impossible.
The North Dakota Livestock Alliance doesn’t take a stand on that law and other ag policy.
“We will follow the laws of the state,” Boeshans said.
But she adds: “Have I had projects not be able to function in North Dakota because of that law? Yes.
“And it’s not just pigs; it’s been extremely hard on dairy.”
“It is a limit, there’s no doubt about that,” said Craig Jarolimek, a Forest River, North Dakota, hog producer. “However, there are ways to get around that,” he said, by creating some partnerships to bring in some outside capital.
Boeshans the capital required, often millions of dollars, means "sticker shock" that must be overcome.
North Dakota has been reluctant to change its 90-year-old ban on corporate farming, though it has been expanded to allow cousins to work together as a part of a partnership.
In 2015, North Dakota legislators passed a bill that would have exempted hog and dairy farms from the law. Farmers Union led a referral effort that led to 76% of voters voting to reject the exemptions.
“It’s going to take the citizens of North Dakota” to change it, Burgum said.
South Dakota had a similar law, known as “Amendment E,” until 2003, when the case South Dakota Farm Bureau Inc. v. Hazeltine led to it being struck down.
What some feared would be a corporate takeover of South Dakota ag hasn’t happened, said Bob Thaler, South Dakota State University Extension swine specialist.
He sees the change and growth of animal agriculture as providing opportunities for the next generation of farmers.
“There’s a lot of family farms that contract feed for Smithfield,” Thaler said, referring to Smithfield Foods, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, one of the large pork processors in the region.
“This is allowing that 20-something to come back to that farm or ranch,” Thaler added.
Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, stands by the corporate farming law.
He points to the furor over a trust connected to Microsoft founder Bill Gates buying land in northeast North Dakota.
“Everybody’s mad because Bill Gates bought land,” Watne said. “They think changing this corporate farming law is going to make that any better? It's just going to increase that thing that everybody's upset about.”
Watne said what is really needed is livestock processing in the state.
He says, yes, South Dakota does have looser corporate farming laws, but it’s been that state’s willingness to try to attract businesses like cheese processing that have built that state’s dairy industry back up.
“South Dakota developed cheese first, as a commitment to provide processing for the milk into cheese in South Dakota. They needed more cows, so the cows came,” Watne said. “We let our dairy processing plants die away.”
When searching for a company to partner with, Quandt said he was told that their farm on the southern edge of North Dakota was too far from the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls.
“I priced out other companies, and all of them told me you're kind of out of our range for trucking the pigs down to the processing plant,” Quandt said.
Boeshans said she would love to see more dairy processing, and some dairy and livestock producers are taking the initiative.
“There are a lot of livestock producers that are putting up their own smaller processing plants,” Boeshans said.
Watne said the state needs to help more.
“There's this constant, constant competition to attract business,” Watne said. “So the state needs to step up and attract the processors.”
Randy Melvin wants to add animal ag to his farm about 35 miles west of Fargo, in part, he says, to provide an opportunity for his children to be involved in the farm.
But he was thwarted by ordinances in Howes Township in Cass County that made siting a hog barn impossible.
The North Dakota Farm Bureau took up Melvin’s cause, taking the township to court. On July 30, 2022, North Dakota East Central District Judge Wade Webb ruled that many of the township’s requirements, such as setbacks, were unlawful.
“The Township does not have authority to regulate an animal feeding operation's appearance, burden on streets, nor general compliance with the Township's Comprehensive Plan,” Webb’s ruling said.
Tyler Leverington is the attorney with Ohnstad Twitchell law firm in Fargo who is handling that case and a couple of other similar cases in Ramsey County, near Devils Lakes, North Dakota.
He said many townships “got sold a bundle of ordinances, once upon a time.”
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“I'm not just talking animal feeding operation ordinances — they got a whole packet of ordinances when they bought these things from some of these engineering firms,” Leverington said.
The ordinances haven’t changed because they haven’t been challenged, he said.
“But when you have townships that either are adversarial to, whether it be certain individuals, or animal agriculture more generally, it just can create a huge mess because the permitting surrounding developing animal agriculture is an expensive time-consuming process,” Leverington said. “I think, over time, that’s been a huge impediment.”
Leverington also works in Minnesota.
“If you asked most North Dakotans, 'Who has more red tape and overzealous regulation, North Dakota or Minnesota?' They would just laugh and say, ‘Of course Minnesota does.’ But the reality is, when it comes to animal agriculture, it is much more difficult to locate an animal feeding operation in North Dakota than it is in Minnesota,” Leverington said.
Leverington said farmers understand that rules and standards need to be in place, but can’t be onerous.
“People should remember that the regulations at the township level are above and beyond a very extensive permitting process at the state level,” Leverington said.
Quandt said their application with the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality was 188 pages long for their two barns. Those barns are in neighboring townships, one of them with only a handful of residents.
Quandt said there was some concern about truck traffic from a resident of one township but otherwise there was not much of an issue.
One of the missions of the North Dakota Livestock Alliance is to meet with county and township officials to help answer questions about modern animal ag and try to get ahead of those concerns.
The Alliance was not in existence when Randy Melvin made his attempt to bring a hog facility to Howes Township in 2015. And he hasn’t given up.
“Before the day I die, I want to have animal ag on our farm,” Melvin said.
Dealing with rules and regulations may be easier than changing people’s attitudes about large scale animal ag — the “stigma around it,” as Quandt says.
He has tried to be transparent about his hog operation. For biosecurity reasons, visitors are not allowed inside the barns, but he had an open house in the barns before the pigs arrived, and a virtual tour is on the North Dakota Livestock Alliance website.
His point is that a modern hog facility and manure handling system does not have the odor that some people associate with animal ag.
Standing outside one of his barns, “Yeah, you know they’re there, but it's not burning your nostrils or anything,” Quandt said.
For Quandt, the manure that gathers in the pit of his hog barns is piped to nearby cornfields and diluted and sprayed through the irrigation system. “So there’s no honey wagons dragging, spilling manure around. It’s all self-contained.”
And by his math, the number of trucks that come in and out of their barns, which are double the size of a typical hog barn, is the same number of trips required to make a corn crop on one quarter of irrigated land.
The worries about odor and traffic, “a lot of those reactions are plain not understanding,” Jarolimek said.
There can be a lot of misinformation spread about livestock operations, he said.
Thaler said North Dakotans can look south for how livestock can improve the employment base and quality of life in rural areas.
“We don’t have rivers of manure running down the ditches,” Thaler said. “We don’t have these plumes of odor that are killing people.”
Advances in barn construction and manure handling have made livestock operations into better neighbors.
“You drive past it, and you’re not even going to know they’re there.”