Six commodity and farm groups in North Dakota have formed an alliance aimed at moving the state's livestock industry forward, but some people wonder about its potential impact on family farms.
Organizers of the North Dakota Livestock Alliance say the nonprofit organization is nonpartisan and will promote the development of the livestock industry in North Dakota, which is dominated by crop farming. While the state ranks first or second in the production of more than a dozen commodities, it barely makes the Top 10 in beef cows and isn't on the chart when it comes to hogs, sheep or chickens.
The intent is to educate consumers about responsible livestock operations to further their development — not to push through large confined animal feeding operations, which often draw opposition by neighbors who fear noise, odor or traffic disruptions, said alliance Chairman Craig Jarolimek, a longtime leader in the state's hog industry.
"Animal agriculture has changed quite a bit. We feel North Dakota is a good fit for that," he said. "Unfortunately there's a misconception of these operations."
North Dakota has become more urban in recent years, with U.S Agriculture Department and Census Bureau data showing 8 percent fewer farms than 20 years ago, along with bigger cities. The population of Fargo, the largest metropolitan area in the state, has grown nearly 30 percent in that time period.
"We're basically about education, and understanding," Jarolimek said.
However, the state's largest rancher group isn't involved in the alliance, and an attorney for a citizen group opposing a proposed hog farm in the southeastern part of the state says there's a danger the new alliance could hurt North Dakota's strong family farming tradition, which has been the subject of a public vote and a lawsuit in recent years.
"I think there are opportunities that would align with what most North Dakotans want for agribusiness, but I do have concerns that this alliance will be taken over by industrial interests (that) don't have family farms at interest but want to make money for shareholders," said Derrick Braaten, attorney for the Concerned Citizens of Buffalo.
The North Dakota Livestock Alliance modeled itself after similar groups in Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa. Other goals are to help develop more meat processing operations, and to create another market for crops such as corn and soybeans, which can be used for animal feed.
The alliance includes groups representing the pork, dairy, corn, soybean and ethanol industries, with the support of the state's Agriculture Department and North Dakota State University. The North Dakota Stockmen's Association, the state's largest rancher group, isn't part of the organization because it already does similar work, Executive Vice President Julie Ellingson said.
"It's something we support," she said, adding that "we have some shared goals, continuing to grow the industry and utilizing feed stuffs."
North Dakota Farm Bureau also decided against being a member, although it has promoted animal agriculture in the state through the years and is suing over a state law that bars out-of-state corporations from owning farms.
Executive Vice President and CEO Jeffrey Missling said Farm Bureau supports what the alliance is trying to do but that "we've got enough of our own projects right now." He did acknowledge, however, that "It would be awkward to be seated at the table with someone involved in the lawsuit."
The reference was to North Dakota Farmers Union, which is on the opposite side of the lawsuit — helping the state attorney general defend the constitutionality of the state's Depression-era ban on corporate farming. Farmers Union also led the fight against the decision by the 2015 Legislature to allow non-family corporations to own hog and dairy operations to boost those industries. Voters in June 2016 overwhelmingly rejected the exemptions.
Despite that, Farmers Union chose to join the alliance. President Mark Watne rejects any notion of incongruity, saying the organization has always supported value-added agriculture and that "I think we can build a much stronger, more successful business model."
Jarolimek thinks the alliance can do just that.
"We'll be there to prepare the seedbed," he said, using a farming analogy. "Then the operators will come after us."