LINCOLN, NE (AP)--The Nebraska Supreme Court May 12 upheld the state's constitutional ban on corporate farming, saying that a large Otoe County hog operation is violating the prohibition.
The high court ruled in a case that stemmed from a lawsuit filed by four citizens, who alleged that David Zahn, the majority stockholder of the corporation, does not take part in the day-to-day operation of the facility, which produces 10,000 feeder hogs a year.
Zahn does not live on the property.
The opinion, written by Judge John Wright, noted that absentee ownership or management is possible under the ban as long as the owner performs much of the management and labor activities.
"Day-to-day labor and management refers to those activities that occur as a routine part of the farm or ranch operation," Wright said. "The evidence shows that Zahn spent no time working with the hogs and approximately one-quarter of an hour per month cleaning or repairing buildings or working outside."
The high court also rejected Zahn's argument that the ban was vague. One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit is John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union and a vigilant watchdog of the state's corporate farming ban.
Known as Initiative 300, the ban was approved by voters in 1982 as a way to help preserve family farms.
It generally prohibits corporations and certain other business entities from owning farmland or engaging in agricultural activity, although there are numerous exceptions.
The secretary of state and the attorney general have subpoena and other investigative powers to enforce the ban.
In 1998, the high court ruled unanimously that Hansen and the other plaintiffs had standing to bring action against Progress Pig because Attorney General Don Stenberg cited a conflict of interest in pursuing the case because he had done legal work for a minority shareholder in the company before taking office.
The court's 1998 decision affirmed language in the state constitution that says citizens can seek enforcement of the ban if the attorney general does not.
It also sent the case back to Otoe County District Court, where Judge Ronald Reagan ruled that Progress Pig was in violation of the ban.
Leo Knowles, the attorney for Progress Pig, was out of his office and could not be reached for comment.
He argued earlier that Zahn, who has farmed all of his life and lives about two miles from the hog facility, makes daily management decisions and does the budget, banking and other management tasks for the operation.
"Zahn is not some absentee consultant," Knowles said. "As farming and hog production have moved into the computer age, Zahn's labor-related activities are no longer limited to chores involving physical production inside the confinement."
In addition to Hansen, the plaintiffs in the case are Norma Hall, David Hansen, and Everett Holstein. Hansen and the other plaintiffs have worked to root out possible violators of Initiative 300.
Hansen said he was gratified by the ruling.
"The Supreme Court has said the Initiative 300 language is clear and understandable," he said. "This case has been in process since 1993 .. the attorney general should have handled it. If the attorney general had done his job, it could have been taken care of in three weeks."