BISMARCK — The North Dakota House on Wednesday, Feb. 20, passed a bill that would add second cousins to the list of who can form a family farm corporation under the state’s strict anti-corporate farming law..

Under existing North Dakota law, officers of a family farm corporation must be “within one of the following degrees of kinship or affinity: parent, son, daughter, stepson, stepdaughter, grandparent, grandson, granddaughter, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, nephew, niece, great-grandparent, great-grandchild, first cousin, or the spouse of a person so related.” House Bill 1388 would add second cousins to the list.

The bill passed 62-30 and now moves to the Senate.

North Dakota’s ban on corporate farming has been a point of contention between the state’s two largest member organizations, North Dakota Farmers Union and North Dakota Farm Bureau.

In 2015, North Dakota legislators passed a bill that would have exempted hog and dairy farms from the law. Farmers Union led a referral effort that led to 76 percent of voters voting to reject the exemptions. North Dakota Farm Bureau filed a lawsuit calling the corporate farming law unconstitutional following the vote, but U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland on Sept. 21, 2018, upheld the law.

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Supporters of HB 1388 have said the move would give farmers struggling with a difficult farm economy another tool for their business and would provide a path for some family farms to pass to the next generation. Opponents, however, have said North Dakota voters have spoken on the matter and do not want to see the law expanded.

Discussion on the house floor came down largely on those lines.

Hillsboro Republican Rep. Aaron McWilliams, the bill's chief sponsor, said the bill would help keep farms within families.

"If our goal is to provide and to protect family farms in our great state and protect our heritage, then we have to expand the very definition of what a family farm is," he said.

The financial advantages of incorporating could help struggling farms, he said.

Rep. Brandy Pyle, R-Casselton, said the bill would allow her family’s farm to continue. She said her husband farms with his father and first cousin, and as his father battles cancer, the farm is looking at ways to move to the next generation.

“If this bill passes, our farm will continue on,” she said.

The House voted to allow Pyle to vote on the bill despite her conflict of interest. No other members indicated a conflict.

However, Rep. Alisa Mitskog, D-Wahpeton, and Rep. Jon Nelson, R-Rugby, spoke against the bill. Mitskog said an attorney who deals with family farms told her “this is not an issue.” Nelson said he is a member of Farm Bureau and Farmers Union — common for farmers in the state — and he disagrees with Farm Bureau’s stance.

Enough money has been wasted on the issue in the courts, and people have spoken “about as loudly as you can hear them,” Nelson said, urging a no vote.