Iowa Public Television


Nebraska Corporate Farm Ban is History

posted on October 5, 2007

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During the "Farm Crisis" of the 1980s, rural Americans endured soaring interest rates, abysmal prices, and, in some cases, the economic hard times spelled the end of the family farm.

In hopes of keeping so-called, "corporate" farmers off the land, Nebraska legislators adopted one of the nation's most restrictive rural laws.

The measure, known as Initiative 300, specified that a landowner had to be involved in day-to-day activities for the operation to be classified as a family farm. But last spring the law was dealt a blow that, effectively, ended the Cornhusker state's law of the land. Andrew Batt explains.

President Jimmy Carter: "The 17 million tons of grain ordered by the Soviet Union will not be delivered…I am determined to minimize any adverse impact to the American farmer."

President Ronald Reagan: "Farmers are resilient. They'll get through this."

National and international events of the 1980's took their toll on farm country. Farm foreclosures were a consistent scene in rural America while farmers and ranchers released their aggression on Congress and corporate agriculture.

Farmer testifying at hearing: "I would crawl on my hands and knees 800 miles back home if it would help the farmers of this country but that is ridiculous."

Like many of their farm-state brethren, Nebraskans dealt with growing tensions amongst farmers, bankers, and rural citizens. Much of the blame for a "weakened" rural economy fell on corporate agriculture. A deep fissure between long-established family farms and fast-growing corporate farms was taking shape.

In the state of Nebraska, voters responded with a grass roots initiative aimed at limiting what they called the "invasive presence" of corporations. They found a solution in 1982 dubbed "ballot Initiative 300, or I-300. The law was known as the strongest, most restrictive and until recently – longest running ban on corporate farms in the United States.

But in the spring of 2007, nearly a quarter century after it was enacted, I-300 was dealt a fatal blow. The 1980's ballot vote was ruled unconstitutional in federal court and the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

John Hansen, President of Nebraska Farmers Union: "It was anything and the kitchen sink that they could use to try to dismantle I-300. "

John Hansen has been on the ground floor of corporate farm bans since the early 70's. Hansen, who serves as President of the Nebraska Farmers Union, says the federal district court made a crucial mistake in repealing the ban and that the issue of corporate farms goes farther than economic interests.

Hansen: "This is a fundamental question of what kind of society we're going to have, who's going to produce our food and fiber. And how we as human beings tie ourself back to the good earth from where we all come. "

Despite the opinion of I-300 supporters like Hansen, a federal judge viewed the case as a violation of the dormant commerce clause because it discriminated against out-of-state interests.

Court rulings took issue with the original ballot language of I-300, which read:

"No corporation or syndicate shall acquire…any title to real estate used for farming or ranching in this state, or engage in farming or ranching."

While the initiative made exceptions for farm businesses run by farmers that reside in Nebraska, the district judge interpreted that I-300 was discriminatory towards corporate interests outside the state's borders. The court's summary judgment cited commercials, aired by proponents of I-300, as a clear example of discrimination against corporations.

I-300 Original Commercial: "Let's send a message to these rich out-of-state corporations. Our land is not for sale and neither is our vote. Vote for Initiative 300."

Chuck Hassebrock, Director of the Center for Rural Affairs: "…the court ruling was a product in my judgment of an activist judge who really wasn't looking at the facts."

Chuck Hassebrock, who heads the non-profit Center for Rural Affairs, argues the original intent and use of I-300 is misunderstood. And that the initiative was merely a tool to keep business owners honest and legally obligated to maintain their farms.

Chuck Hassebrock, Director of the Center for Rural Affairs: "What initiative 300 really said is that anybody who wants to invest in agriculture go ahead and invest but you're going to play by the same rules as most farmers and ranchers"

But the plaintiffs in this case say backers of I-300 rarely played by the rules and that commerce issues were just the tip of the iceberg.

Shad Dahlgren, Lincoln, NE: "I don't know that the family farm exists in the way they talk about it. I think that farming is a business. It has been for a long time."

Shad Dahlgren was one of six original plaintiffs in the I-300 case. The native Nebraskan argues businesses and free markets were restricted by the ban. And if that wasn't enough, I-300, according to Dahlgren, violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Shad Dahlgren is a paraplegic, one of two physically impaired plaintiffs on the I-300 lawsuit. Dahlgren says the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, clearly says he should be allowed to participate in farm ownership. However, an I-300 clause states any farm owner "must be involved in the day-to-day operations on the farm."

Shad Dahlgren, Lincoln, NE: "…that is completely bogus. There is no reason for that. Nobody should be limited in that way."

For supporters of I-300, like John Hansen, the use of ADA is a gross attack on the state's constitutional clause. According to Dahlgren's lawyer, Steve Mossman, there has never been a case in Nebraska in which a physically impaired farmer was denied farm ownership. But neither Dahlgren nor his lawyer received a ruling on any potential conflict between I-300 and ADA, as the courts decided that a violation of the dormant commerce clause was enough to repeal the ban.

So what comes next for Nebraska farmers? With I-300 clearly dead, the state's Attorney General, Jon Bruning, says regulation is the logical next step.

Jon Bruning, Nebraska Attorney General: "I-300 served a great purpose, it really did, I mean, we are ahead of the game in Nebraska, we haven't had the massive disasters that some states in the Carolinas where the unregulated hog farms came in and just polluted the heck out of everything, we have not had that in Nebraska. I-300 is a big reason…"

Bruning, along with the state legislature is attempting to tackle life after I-300.

Sen. Philip Erdman, R - : "…when elected bodies are given a court ruling in which they disagree or have a different opinion of how to accomplish that public policy, they have every right and I would argue every responsibility to go and try to fix that law."

State agriculture committee chairperson Philip Erdman says Nebraska's unicameral has already passed a bill establishing an advisory council whose members may develop new corporate farm policy. That measure is now law and no legislation is expected until 2008.

Jon Bruning, Nebraska Attorney General: "…the legislature has reflected a new reality, the attorney general's office has reflected a new reality. Counties are now zoning so there didn't used to be any county zoning back in the early 80's or very little of it, so there are rules now by which anybody who wants to get into the agriculture game has to play. And I'm telling you, it's a lot better in 2007 than it was in 1982."

Despite 25 years of controversy, I-300's lasting legacy may be how it reminds us of a time when farmers were in crisis and rural America was searching for answers.

For Market to Market, I'm Andrew Batt.


Tags: activism agriculture business farmers Nebraska news