When Nebraska's attorney general said it would be unconstitutional to restrict corporate farming, Neil Oxton set out to change the state constitution.
When the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce, Nebraska Bankers Association and big business interests banded together to defeat Oxton's campaign, he rallied supporters one church basement at a time across the state.
The result was voter approval in 1982 of a citizen-driven constitutional amendment — known on the ballot as Initiative 300 — that prohibited corporate farm ownership in the state. It was the nation's toughest restriction on farming by non-family corporations and it withstood challenges for 24 years before being overturned by a federal court.
Oxton died Nov. 16 in Moorhead, Minn. He was 91.
“He looked upon Initiative 300 as the crowning achievement of his business career,'' said son Jay Oxton of Omaha.
Neil Oxton didn't gloat about winning the contentious campaign as an underdog pitted against big business, but he recognized that the grassroots initiative holds a significant place in Nebraska political history, said John Hansen of Lincoln, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union.
“I said it a long time ago and I'll say it again, Neil Oxton was the right person, at the right time, at the right place to make the whole deal happen,'' Hansen said.
Hansen said Oxton, who was Nebraska Farmers Union president from 1977 until retiring in 1985, wasn't unrealistic about the challenge but was fearless and not intimidated by political opponents with money and power.
“Neil had a lot of command presence,'' Hansen said. “Like a lot of World War II veterans, he knew what he believed and was very difficult to frighten or bluff.''
Oxton was a strategic thinker, a good tactician — and he infected others with confidence, Hansen said.
Initiative 300's roots date to the late 1960s, when the Nebraska Legislature started debating bills to limit the ability of corporations to own farmland and livestock in the state. None passed. By the mid-1970s, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin had adopted state laws restricting corporate farming.
Advocates said Nebraska needed a similar law to level the playing field between outside investors and family farmers.
Oxton lobbied the Legislature, but the effort was frustrated when then-Attorney General Paul Douglas said such laws would be unconstitutional. Oxton decided to try to change the constitution.
He spent day and night organizing an initiative petition drive and then orchestrating the campaign with the help of the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs. Nebraskans approved the initiative with 57 percent of the vote.
Legislative and court challenges followed. The prohibition survived until a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2006 that the amendment violated federal restrictions against state laws that discriminate in interstate commerce.
Hansen said Oxton sensed in the 1980s — during an agricultural recession of low crop prices and low farm incomes — that he had the support of Nebraskans for the corporate prohibition.
“He said that if we believe that, then we have to give Nebraskans an opportunity to have public policy that reflects their views and values — and that we have to have the courage to go out and do it,'' Hansen said.
Born John Neilan Oxton in Hope, N.D., Oxton grew up on a farm near Finley, N.D. He married Leikny Iverson in 1942.
He served in the China-Burma-India Theater during World War II with the Army's 31st Signal Construction Battalion, Company B, 2nd Platoon.
Oxton spent the early 1950s working as a field engineer for a company supervising construction of rural electric cooperative facilities. He worked for Farmers Union and Farmers Union Insurance in North Dakota, Nebraska and national offices from 1955 to 1985, first arriving in Nebraska in 1968. He was an early proponent of converting corn to alcohol to help boost the nation's energy supply.
Oxton's wife died in 2002. He moved to Moorhead to be near siblings in 2011. In addition to son Jay, survivors include son Dwight of Naples, Fla., six grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, two brothers and three sisters. A son, Lanier, died in 2011.
His memorial service will be held next spring.