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Nebraska anti-corporate farm law withstands the test of time

(Thursday, Jan. 9, 2003 – CropChoice news) -- Scott Bauer, AP, via The Agribusiness Examiner: Nebraska may be best known for its beef, but the state has something else that sets it apart: the nation's only constitutional ban on corporate farming. In the 20 years since a citizen's initiative led to the ban, it has withstood court challenges and, supporters say, helped protect Nebraska farmers.

"It's helped keep grain and livestock production in the hands of family farmers and independent producers in our state," said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union. "We're a more diverse and economically beneficial state because of it."

Nebraska has avoided becoming the home to large agribusiness operations, mega-hog farms and livestock feeding lots, in large part thanks to the ban, known as Initiative 300, Hansen said.

Lobbyist Walt Radcliffe opposed the initiative on behalf of Prudential Insurance Co., which invested heavily in Nebraska agricultural land in 1982. Radcliffe argued then -- and continues to argue -- that it unfairly restricts the marketplace. "We have driven away any large out-of-state dollars," he said. "We have restricted buyers, we have kept profits down and furthermore, we have kept capital out of the state of Nebraska."

In the mid-1970s, many Midwestern states moved to restrict corporate farming. Eight states --- Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin --- passed laws. But none of those states has a ban in their constitution or laws as restrictive as the Nebraska ban, according to a study last year by researchers at Clarkson University and Cornell University.

South Dakota voters approved a ban in 1998, but it was struck down by a federal judge as unconstitutional. Appeals are pending.

The failure of other states to follow Nebraska's lead may have resulted from difficulty in amending state constitutions, satisfaction with existing laws and the lack of groups advocating for the change, said Jon Bailey, director of the rural policy program for the Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Nebraska.

Getting Nebraska's ban passed wasn't easy. After more than a decade of lobbying the Legislature for an anti-corporate farming law, supporters led a petition drive to get the ban on the state's ballot. In some ways, the unwillingness of lawmakers to act helped the cause because the constitutional amendment approved by voters was much stronger than any compromise that would have made it through the Legislature, said Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Walthill center and one of those who helped write Initiative 300.

Initiative 300 generally prohibits corporations and certain other business entities from owning farmland or engaging in agricultural activity, although there are exceptions. The exceptions include farms that are family-owned and operated, nonprofit corporations, American Indian tribal corporations, land used for seed or nursery purposes, and land used for research or experimental purposes.

Hundreds of non-family corporate farm operations were grandfathered in when the amendment took effect in 1982. The farms were not permitted to get any larger, and only about half of them still exist, Hansen said.

Advocates for small farms say that even with the ban, the number of family farms in Nebraska continues to decline. The number of such farms in the state has dropped from 65,000 in 1980 to 54,000 in 2000, according to the U.S. Census. The farms are largely being bought up by neighbors and urban dwellers seeking land to live on, Hansen said.

"They're not being bought by non-family-farm corporations," he said. "That's the big difference between Nebraska and other states."