Against Oil Industry's Rising Tide, N.D. Farmers Strike Back

As North Dakota's oil boom takes hold, the state's agricultural producers are feeling neglected. Grain competes with oil for space on trains and roads, and spills can damage cropland. Emily Guerin of Prairie Public Broadcasting reports that the Democratic candidate for agricultural commissioner is proposing a "landowners bill of rights" to protect farmers and ranchers.

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In North Dakota, farming and ranching were always top industries. But there's a shift underway, and recently, oil topped agriculture. It's a milestone for a state that had hardly any oil production 10 years ago. And the shift is creating tension as we hear from Emily Guerin of Prairie Public Radio.

EMILY GUERIN, BYLINE: Killdeer, North Dakota turns 100 this year, and it feels like everyone in town is at the rodeo, celebrating the farming and ranching heritage here.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Well, it's a cowboy town once again this week as we celebrate 100 years in Killdeer.

GUERIN: Killdeer may be a cowboy town this week, but increasingly, it's an oil town. And it usually sounds much more like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF OIL TRUCKS)

GUERIN: The main street is crowded with huge trucks hauling water and oil and gravel back and forth from wells all around here.

JESSE SIPE: Used to be you'd see one person on the road traveling 30 miles. Now you can't drive 10 miles without seeing 15 or 20 vehicles.

GUERIN: That's Jesse Sipe (ph), who manages the Western Choice co-op in downtown Killdeer. The co-op was founded by local ranchers and farmers in 1935, but it's not just a farm store anymore. There's lots of stuff now for the oil industry. Sipe points to a rack of $70 fire resistant sweatshirt.

SIPE: It's specifically designed for explosions on the oil rig. And there's no farmer that's ever going to need that - no.

GUERIN: But that's a problem. The new customers with all their oil money are getting priority over the old one. And that bothers ranchers like Taylor Bang who's one of the co-op's members.

TAYLOR BANG: We see our groceries higher. We see our restaurant prices higher. We see a lot of, that but we felt like we have a little more control of this because the customer is the owner.

GUERIN: So a few months ago, this co-op fired its president and hired new store managers who are friendlier to farmers. This tension isn't unique to Killdear. It's a new reality in North Dakota.

RYAN TAYLOR: I got a cow on the other side that we must've missed yesterday.

GUERIN: Ryan Taylor is driving his ATV around his ranch in the central part of the state. He lives 30 miles from the tiny town of Anamoose. To get there, you drive on endless gravel roads past fields and abandoned homestead. Taylor is running for state agriculture commissioner in a race that's now as much about oil as it is about ag. He proposes something radical for North Dakota, a landowner's bill of rights. That, he argues, would protect farmers from the worst impacts of the oil industry.

TAYLOR: We're going to harvest oil for, say, 30 or 40 year. But it will end at some time. So we need to make sure, in the meantime, that agriculture is healthy and is not forsaken.

GUERIN: There's a couple of things farmers worry most about - First is the backlog of grain shipments that's partially due to more traffic from oil trains, delays that cost them millions. They also worry about spills. In the past year, there have been nearly 800 salt water spills in North Dakota.

TAYLOR: When there's a break and when there's a spill, it'll sterilize the soil for probably a generation or more.

GUERIN: But not everyone thinks the oil boom is making life worse for farmers and ranchers.

WARREN DAVERNIC: I'm Warren Davernic (ph), and we're in rural Dunn County - west of Killdeer - just trying to get a little haying done in between the showers.

GUERIN: Two pump jacks are nodding just beyond his hay field. Like many other landowners, Davernic receives a royalty check every month. It's just a few hundred dollars, but it helps.

DAVERNIC: I'm able to buy newer equipment. Like, if you look at my swather here it's - currently, I believe it's approaching 30 years old. You know, having more cash available to replace and update stuff helps.

GUERIN: Across the state, per capita personal income has almost doubled that of a decade ago, mostly thanks to oil. So it's not surprising that some farmers and ranchers say the booms benefits outweigh the costs. Donna Scott is a rancher and a Dunn County Commissioner who lives outside of Killdeer. She says the boom is bringing young people back to North Dakota.

DONNA SCOTT: I think, sometimes, industry gets a bad rap. But on the same token, this is what has kept these small communities alive and healthy and growing.

GUERIN: That's one thing many North Dakotans agree on. The other is that, like in years past, this oil boom will end eventually. And when it does, it will be farmers and ranchers keeping the economy going. For NPR News, I'm Emily Guerin in Bismarck.

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