State Mill reflects ND populism

Dean Hulse


Question: when is a tail not a tail? Answer: when it’s a waggin’. That joke, as harmless as it may seem, implies the danger of confusing one thing with another.

Take, for example, a present-day understanding of the term “populism.” The denotative meaning of populism becomes something quite different when the intended outcome of those misusing it is to divide people rather than unite us.

Composed of “prairie populists,” members of the North Dakota Nonpartisan League (NPL) created the Bank of North Dakota and built a state-owned mill and elevator, which today is the largest facility of its kind in the United States. In contrast, former President Trump, dubbed a “populist” by many, partially built a wall on our southern border.

The NPL proposed the bank and mill and elevator as a way to wrestle command away from monopolistic entities and return some economic control to the people. Trump’s wall has proven ineffective in most aspects except one–to turn people against those they view as “others.” You know, those people.

Along those same Trumpian lines, Florida law now includes what began as Senate Bill 1834: “Parental Rights in Education,” or what many opposing the legislation have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Coincidentally, Canada’s 2021 Census concludes that one out of every 300 Canadians older than age 15 identify as transgender or nonbinary.

Should North Dakotans prepare for an invading LGBTQ hoard from the north? Which politician(s) will propose building a wall here? Do citizens of the “Peace Garden State” really want a Trump-esque structure on our border with Canada?

Or, should we invest in more state-owned enterprises such as a rendering plant and a network of small butcher shops to better serve all of us? Or, how about building a state-owned bakery adjacent to the North Dakota Mill and Elevator so all citizens could benefit from wholesome bread products priced just slightly higher than cost? How about a state-owned fleet of delivery vehicles to ensure those baked items arrive to all corners of the state? Those vehicles could even run on hydrogen processed at a state-owned plant.

Would any of those ventures succeed? North Dakota history provides an answer. According to a commemorative handbook and financial records, here’s how the mill and elevator has performed– societally and economically — since its inception:

— During the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, the mill lost money, in part, because it ground nearly 530,000 bushels of wheat into flour for the Red Cross. That flour eased the suffering of many North Dakotans, particularly in western North Dakota.

— Also in the ’30s, the mill operated at full capacity and sold flour at cost within the state, while selling flour at a profit outside North Dakota.

— In 1938, extreme heat lowered the test weight of North Dakota wheat, and Minneapolis grain traders subsequently began paying 37 cents a bushel for this wheat rather than the 89 cents/bushel they had been paying. To counter this threat to North Dakota farmers, the mill paid a 35-cent premium, compared to prices local elevators offered for the same wheat.

— In 1992, after Hurricane Andrew hit the southern coast of Florida, the mill sent 216 100-pound bags of flour to the people of Florida — enough flour to produce 100,000 loaves of bread.

— Since 1971 (as far back as financial records go), the mill has generated about $241 million in profits.

— Since 1971, the mill has contributed about $133 million to the state’s General Fund and the Agricultural Products Utilization Fund.

But isn’t prairie populism simply “socialism” dressed up in work pants? I would contend that our state-owned enterprises represent a collective effort to counter the monopolistic stranglehold of certain corporations.

By the way, ag producers, don’t criticize so-called socialism as long as you’re benefitting from subsidized federal crop insurance. Likewise consumers and other North Dakota taxpayers, don’t complain about “big government” when, on average, every North Dakota taxpayer receives about $300 back from the federal government — that is, $300 more than they’ve paid in, according to a 2019 article appearing in Business Insider.

Let’s celebrate the 100th anniversary of the North Dakota Mill and Elevator by building on its legacy of charity and efficiency, and let’s not waste any more effort focusing on how we can tear each other down.


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