On Corporate Farming
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
February 2015

The North Dakota legislature is considering making radical changes to the state’s corporate farming law to allow outside investors to own dairy and swine operations. The North Dakota Catholic Conference opposes the bill. This position is not new. North Dakota’s Catholic bishops, like bishops around the country, have for decades appealed for laws that preserve and maintain farm ownership and control in the hands of local family farmers. In fact, seventy-six years ago Catholic bishops of the United States, led by Fargo Bishop Aloisius Muench — the only bishop from North Dakota to be named a Cardinal — warned that investor ownership of farms would by its nature threaten families, communities, and our obligations as stewards of creation.

Some could argue that agriculture has changed since 1939, and they would be right. But who we are as human persons and what farming is to us as humans has not changed. That is why this is a religious issue. It is a religious issue, because it is a moral issue. It is a moral issue, because it is a human issue. It is a human issue because, as Pope Francis stated just a few weeks ago, farming is “characteristically and fundamentally human.”

Indeed, Pope Francis’ recent address on the vocation of agriculture is enlightening in that it illustrates precisely why investor-ownership of farms is so risky. Pope Francis explains that the relationship a farmer has with the land is “familiar.” The Italian word he used was “familiare,” which means not “familiar” as in “well known,” but “of family.” This is important to understand. Outside investors cannot be like family. Only human persons can relate “like family.” Only human persons are capable of entering into a covenant with creation.

The Pope went on to remind us that because farming is such a uniquely human vocation, how we engage in agriculture and how we treat farmers affects who we are as humanity. Indeed, the position of the bishops is not based not just on church doctrine. It also stems from what they and other bishops have witnessed in states that have repealed or weakened corporate farming laws. It used to be that the primary concern of bishops in rural areas was the health of the family farm. In states that have embraced corporate farming the primary concern has shifted to the health and safety of farmworkers, most of whom are immigrants, documented and undocumented.

The bill introduced, SB 2351, is intended to help the dairy and swine operators. But the bill is not just about a small segment of the agricultural community. It is a radical upending of the foundation of our state’s most widespread and permeating activity. Disrespecting the “familiar” relationship that should exist between the human farmer and farming will affect us all. If we truly believe that North Dakota is such a great place to live, why would we take that risk?

Some segments of agriculture are facing difficult times and we need to respond. Indeed, it is a moral imperative that we respond. North Dakotans, however, have always faced difficult challenges. Nevertheless, we have always found creative solutions without sacrificing our way of life and without succumbing to the temptation to reduce agriculture a mere economic activity. Nor should we succumb to the temptation to want something just because other states have it. The Ten Commandments has something to say about that. In North Dakota, we have done -- and can do -- better.

Jesus asked, “What does it profit a man if he gain the world and lose his soul?” We must ask, “What does it profit our state if we gain some investors in agriculture but lose the soul of agriculture?”