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Nebraska Divided Over Corporate Farming With BC-Saving Farms

April 10, 1988

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) _ Nebraska’s long-running dispute over a constitutional amendment created to protect family farmers has just two points of agreement: It’s the toughest corporate farm restriction in the nation, and the fight’s far from over.

Each side claims to be working in the best interest of Nebraska and its farmers.

The question, according to a leading supporter, Marty Strange, is whether ″Nebraska’s ag future will develop on its family farm base, whether farms in the future will be owned and operated by people who live on them and are part of the community that those farms are the economic base of.″

John DeCamp, a lobbyist and former state senator, is an outspoken opponent.

″It’s a handicap to normal business and commerce as conducted in the ... the United States,″ he said. ″A corporation is a normal tool for doing business, just like a combine is a normal tool for processing and harvesting corn.″

The battle over what became Initiative 300 began in the early 1970s, as irrigation development and corporate interest in agriculture burgeoned.

The dispute peaked when corporate farming foes, frustrated by years of legislative inaction, gathered enough signatures to place a constitutional amendment on the 1982 general election ballot.

The amendment ran about 1,100 words, but its basic provisions were:

- Non-family farm corporations, with a few exceptions, cannot own agricultural land or engage in farming and cannot own or feed livestock, except for livestock purchased for slaughter and a few other kinds.

- The majority of voting stock in family farm and ranch corporations must be held by family members, at least one of whom must live on the farm or be actively engaged in the daily labor and management.

- Individuals and groups can seek enforcement if the secretary of state or attorney general fails to enforce the amendment.

An emotional campaign preceded the vote. Opponents said the proposal would paralyze economic growth and stifle competition; supporters argued that corporate farming threatened rural economic and social foundations.

Voters approved the amendment, 290,377 to 224,555, but the issue remained unsettled.

Legislators have tried unsuccessfully to pass laws clarifying the amendment and to get voters to abolish it.

A court challenge ended when the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled the amendment constitutional. However, opponents say the court test was decided on too narrow a question of law and talk of staging another petition drive to return the issue to the ballot.

Strange, senior associate for the Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, contends the amendment has done exactly what it was designed to do - protect family farmers from unfair corporate competition.

It is the nation’s ″only truly effective″ family farm legislation because it is in the state constitution and restricts corporate farming activities as well as land ownership, he said.

Opponents argue that Initiative 300 restricts business, scares many companies away from investing in Nebraska, prevents farmers from selling land to whomever they choose and affords protections that are unfair, unnecessary and unrealistic.

″The only way that family farms will be saved is economically,″ said state Sen. Dennis Baack, a vocal foe who farms about 2,000 acres and raises wheat and sunflowers. ″We need prices for our products. Those are the kind of things that will save family farms. It’s not going to be words in our constitution.″

Another state senator, Ernie Chambers, said Initiative 300 hasn’t been on the books long enough to assess whether it is restricting business or helping farmers.

″The people are the ones who put it there and they did it because the Legislature chose not to act,″ said Chambers, who favors the measure.

A U.S. District Court case, filed earlier this year by opponents, is the first federal test of the amendment. A hearing is scheduled April 18.

The federal lawsuit, filed by Sunrise Ventures Inc., a custom cattle- feeding operation, seeks to stop Attorney General Robert Spire from enforcing Initiative 300 on the grounds it violates the commerce, equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S Constitution.

Sunrise may be in violation of the amendment’s prohibitions on ownership of livestock, Spire said, but the company appears to be exempt under a provision that allows ownership of animals ″purchased for slaughter.″ On that ground, Spire has asked that Sunrise’s suit be dismissed.

Amendment opponents hailed Spire’s action as a kind of concession - and a victory. DeCamp and Baack said it opened up the issue because all cattle ultimately are slaughtered. ″There are very few cattle in my district that live to be retired,″ Baack said.

Strange called Spire’s action irresponsible, but said ″it doesn’t affect the foundation of the family farm amendment at all.″

DeCamp agreed the dispute isn’t over. If the Sunrise case is dismissed, opponents will challenge the issues of land ownership and engaging in farming, he said.

″This is just the beginning,″ he said. ″I’m sure the next stage won’t be so easy.″

End Adv Sunday April 10

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