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Published July 02, 2015, 09:23 AM

Family farms are the future of agriculture

My family owns a farm near Medina, N.D., and we now are transitioning that operation to Steve Sund and his family. Our farm has always been and will always remain a family farm committed to serving the health of the land and the community.

By: Frederick Kirschenmann,

My family owns a farm near Medina, N.D., and we now are transitioning that operation to Steve Sund and his family. Our farm has always been and will always remain a family farm committed to serving the health of the land and the community.

In my career, I’ve had the opportunity to directly observe the evolution of corporate-owned farms. Such farms operate by a single principle: maximum, efficient production for short-term economic return (especially return to the shareholders). There are no incentives in that business model to attend to the health of the land or the community. As an article from Time magazine pointed out in October 1992, the corporatization of U.S. agriculture makes farmers “virtual serfs on their own land.” That is not the path to a future sustainable food and farming system in this country.

The expansion of nonfamily corporations into North Dakota will enhance the undemocratic and unfair system that is damaging communities across the world. Nonfamily corporations are attacking country-of-origin labeling (COOL), destroying food sovereignty and fighting to weaken laws that protect people, land and communities. It is in everyone’s interest to attend to this destructive process.

Weakening the anti-corporate farming law in North Dakota is a grim mistake. The movement toward large-scale industrial agriculture is not just about unfair economics, it’s about the negative impacts on quality of life, the environment and destruction of rural communities. Nonfamily, corporate-controlled agricul-

ture is destroying rural communities across the U.S.

Furthermore, these structures are energy intensive and cannot continue to operate as energy costs go up. For example, when crude oil rose to $147 per barrel in 2007, corporate hog operations in Iowa were losing $20 per hog. We need to prepare for a future when crude oil will likely cost more than that. We need to design farming systems that are more regenerative, diverse and self-renewing.

Corporate farms operating on the principle of short-term return, devoted to “getting big or getting out,” and farming “fencerow to fencerow” are not sustainable. Family farms operating on the principle of taking care of the land and their communities will have a distinct competitive advantage.

Family agriculture in rural North Dakota is thriving because North Dakota’s farmers and ranchers are the experts. They are in the best position to make decisions about how to use their land and run their businesses. And most importantly, they operate on the principle of affection — for land, community, home, and your neighbors. The focus for North Dakota must be on strengthening family-run agriculture, rural communities and using the tools we have to grow the economy from the bottom up.

We have an ideal system of family farm agriculture in North Dakota. It is not a relic of the past — it is the agriculture of the future. North Dakotans support and want food produced on a family farm where food safety, food security and stewardship of land and livestock are a way of life.

The North Dakota Farmers Union and Dakota Resource Council have got it right. Why change a system we know works? Together, with volunteers from across the state, these groups have successfully completed a petition drive to refer SB 2351, which weakened protections for family-run ag in North Dakota. The Secretary of State’s office is now verifying the more than 21,000 signatures collected for placement on the June 2016 ballot.

All of this is not just about short-term economics, as the recent Forum of Fargo Moorhead editorial (Rural towns need more than new farm law, Agweek, June 22) implied, it is about long-term food and farming resilience, and that security is in everyone’s interest. How North Dakotans vote on this issue in 2016 will have a strong impact on our food future, and that does kick up more than a “dust devil’s worth of difference.”

Editor’s note: Kirschenmann is a Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and president of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. He also manages his family’s 1,800-acre certified organic farm in south-central North Dakota.

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