Good Luck, Farmers Union (And Other Sort-Of Related Items)

So the North Dakota Farmers Union held a big rally today on the Capitol steps to kick off the petition drive to refer North Dakota Senate Bill 2351, which would exempt dairies and hog farms from our anti-corporation farming laws. It’s nice to see the spunk coming from the NDFU. I hope their referral effort is successful.

They’ve got a little experience at this. They’re fresh from a 2014 ballot initiative victory as part of the coalition formed last year to defeat Measure 5, the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment. It might have been better if the Farmers Union President Mark Watne had not referenced that as a victory in front of Friday’s crowd–about half of them were on the other side of that measure, and it opened some not-so-old wounds.

That coalition, which included, among others, the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce, the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association and the North Dakota Farm Bureau, ran the most despicable and dishonest campaign ever seen in North Dakota. So in that respect, it’s probably a good thing that none of those organizations was present at today’s rally, standing beside Watne and National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson.

But don’t be surprised if those unlikely 2014 coalition partners of the Farmers Union hold a rally of their own—to fight the Farmers Union’s referral attempt, and defeat their one-time ally. Because those three groups have been leaders in the effort to get rid of the state’s anti-corporation farming law for years and years. We’ll get an early indication of the opposition if somebody starts a campaign discouraging people from signing the referral petition. That was one of the tactics the group used last year. It wasn’t successful in keeping the measure off the ballot, but it was a way to get the anti’s message out early, and it set the tone for the rest of the campaign.

I think the leaders of the generally-progressive Farmers Union are about to learn a hard lesson: There’s no loyalty among thieves.

Emboldened by the millions of dollars supplied by Big Oil to defeat Measure 5 last year, those three conservative organizations are still grinning over the naivete of Watne and his board of directors who bit, hook, line and sinker, into the ugly campaign to defeat Measure 5.  I suspect the Farmers Union is about to be on the receiving end of what it participated in handing out to conservation groups last year. It’s going to be a lesson hard-learned.

So this year it is about big out-of-state corporate dairies and corporate hog farms invading the state.  Well, guess what? They’re already here. Is anybody following the story about the murder of two people at one of those huge hog farms near Bottineau this week? The manager and one of the employees of Turtle Mountain Pork were murdered by a fellow employee on the farm’s premises. And that’s no family farm. Hog farm(It’s not really a farm at all—just a big building where mama pigs spend their lives standing up in a pen not big enough to turn around in, spitting out babies. I’m guessing they are artificially inseminated, so they don’t even get the pleasure of a visit from a boar a couple times a year. You think your bacon comes from a pigpen on Old MacDonald’s Farm? Guess again.)

Turtle Mountain Pork, where the murders occurred, is owned by AMVC Management Services, LLC, of Aududon, Iowa. That “LLC” in the name stands for Limited Liability Company. Technically, it’ not a corporation, but a rose, or in this case a hog, by any other name . . . I mean, come on, say the words out loud: LIMITED LIABILITY. Isn’t that the whole idea behind corporations—to protect the shareholders from liability?

AMVC has a wide footprint in North Dakota. In addition to their Bottineau operation, they either own or manage similar operations near Langdon in north central North Dakota and Scranton in southwest North Dakota. There might be more. They also have a wide footprint nationally. amvc-mapThey are listed in farm publications as the 9th largest pork producer in the U.S., with operations in Iowa, North Dakota, Ohio, Indiana, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado and South Dakota. So anyone who believes our anti-corporation farming laws are keeping big out-of-state operators out of North Dakota can think again. (Incidentally, they also operate dairies in other states. Isn’t that convenient?)

AMVC posted a statement on its website this week, after the murders, from their corporate headquarters in Iowa: “We were devastated and shocked by the tragedy that occurred at Turtle Mountain Pork yesterday morning.  We are cooperating with authorities to ensure the responsible person(s) is brought to justice.”

My guess is the AMC facility is just a taste of what is to come Hog farm exteriorif the referral is unsuccessful and the law passed by this legislature and signed by Jack Dalrymple is allowed to stand. I haven’t seen one of these “farms” but I read a newspaper story that described “a gestation barn roughly the size of two football fields placed end to end.”

But, back to matters at hand. I just hope the Farmers Union knows what it is getting into this year. The organization has been involved in a number of ballot measures over the years, most notably the successful effort to levy a 6.5 per cent tax on oil and gas production in 1980—the famed Measure 6. That year, they were part of another, more traditional coalition, which included the North Dakota AFL-CIO, the North Dakota REC’s and the North Dakota Education Association. Unlike today, those organizations were headed by giants in the North Dakota political arena: Stanley Moore from the Farmers Union, Adrian Dunn from the NDEA, Chub Ulmer from the REC’s and Jim Gerl from the labor groups. And their chief strategist was Deputy Tax commissioner Kent Conrad, whom I have called North Dakota’s best politician ever. If the farm group has half a brain, they will try to put that coalition back together. And bring back Kent.

Today’s Farmers Union is wealthy, the result of successful insurance and other outside business ventures, so it can probably afford to run a campaign. But it lacks political savvy, especially at the top. Its officers and county chairmen actually believed the anti-conservation line they were fed last year by the Chamber, and passed it along to the members. The Chamber needed to suck the state’s largest farm organization into the Measure 5 battle to give itself some credibility beyond the business community. President Watne took the bait, and became a visible part of that dishonest campaign.

All right, I’ve used the word dishonest a few times today, and a number of times in the past. So, prove it, you say. Well, okay then.

I’m not going to rehash the whole campaign, but I want to go back to something I wrote about here a couple months ago, something that influenced the votes of a lot of people who helped defeat the measure. That’s this:

We were told we didn’t need to pass Measure 5 because there was already an Outdoor Heritage Fund which was going to provide $30 million in the current biennium, and, at a key juncture in the campaign, Jack Dalrymple jumped in and promised to add $50 million to that in the next biennium. Turns out, neither of those numbers is true.

There never was $30 million in the kitty for the current biennium. Because of a glitch in the formula that dictates the income to that fund, there was not even $20 million. But no one challenged that number.

There was $50 million in the Governor’s budget proposal for the next biennium, but that number has already been slashed by the Legislature to $40 million, and may go lower before this Session is over. We also now know that, to make up for that shortfall in the current biennium, the Industrial Commission, which approves the grants from that fund, is already borrowing from next biennium’s income, leaving something far less than $40 million  available for the next two years. So the $80 million we were promised last year has shrunk now to below $60 million, spread over 4 years, hardly enough for any major conservation initiatives.

Karleen Fine, the Executive Director of the Industrial Commission, explained to me how this works. As of today, the Industrial Commission has approved more than $19 million in grants from the OHF, but the fund is only going to take in a little more than $18 million by the time the biennium ends June 30. But because a lot of these projects are going to take a few years, maybe even ten years, to complete, the grantees won’t draw down the actual cash in the fund below what is coming in this biennium.

Now there’s a new grant round coming up, with an application deadline of April 1—next week. The requests will be screened by the Outdoor Heritage Advisory Committee and recommendations made to the Industrial Commission, which will likely grant the funds at a meeting in June. But when they do that, they’ll actually be granting from whatever funds the 2015 Legislature approves for 2016-2017.

So if, for example, the Advisory Committee recommends $11 million in grants, and the Industrial Commission approves that amount, to bring the biennial total up to the $30 million they promised, they’ll be committing to spend $11 million of next biennium’s money before that two-year budget period even starts.  Because they have continuing appropriation authority, Karleen says, they can do that.

Well, yeah, but state agencies have always been pretty gun-shy about spending next biennium’s money before next biennium starts. Kind of like a payday loan. It might be legal, but it sure sets a bad example for the rest of society.

But hey, promises were made.

Y’know what I think? I think all this money floating around the state as a result of the boom has made our government sleazy. And, by extension, has made North Dakota and its citizens appear a little sleazy too. I don’t like it.

But back to the Farmers Union. I wish them well. If I had one piece of advice, based on a lot of years of political campaigns, it would be to enlist someone like former Farmers Union President Robert Carlson to step in and run the campaign. Carlson flew in the face of the group’s leadership in the last election, and he has credibility with the other organizations needed to join them in this campaign.  Something the Farmers Union desperately needs right now.

3 thoughts on “Good Luck, Farmers Union (And Other Sort-Of Related Items)

  1. Why is the Prairie Blog not in every North Dakota newspaper?! We desperately need an honest and balanced view of these complicated issues.


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