Profiles of Effective LawmakersNorth Dakota

Dawson Holle: A Fresh Voice in North Dakota Politics

March 20, 2024

by Pamela Goldsmith

State Representative Dawson Holle (ND – R) made history in North Dakota, becoming the youngest elected lawmaker in the state’s history at the age of 18 while still attending high school. Hailing from Bismarck, Holle — also a fifth-generation dairy farmer — seized the opportunity to represent District 31, channeling his passion for dairy farming into a political journey he has embraced wholeheartedly. 

The catalyst for Holle’s dive into politics was rooted in conversations with his grandfather, sitting in the family’s dairy barn. Concerned about the dwindling number of dairy farms in the state, Holle and his grandfather brainstormed solutions, ultimately conceiving the idea for him to run for office.

Despite agriculture being North Dakota’s leading industry, the state witnessed an increasing decline in dairy farms, dropping from 350 to 91 between 2000 and 2015 alone. Today, the State Agriculture Department reports that only 29 federally regulated dairy farms remain. This significant downturn, largely attributed to the consolidation of smaller farms into large corporate dairy production, prompted Holle to take action.

“There were quite a few [dairy farm] state law policies that needed to be changed,” explained Holle. “Instead of trying to recruit someone to do it, I thought, ‘you know, it’s just better if you can know it and you do it.’ It’s why I threw my hat in the ring.”

Holle’s campaign strategy assumed a grassroots approach, knocking on doors and engaging directly with constituents. A departure from conventional political methods, his emphasis on personal interactions resonated with voters, evident in the 250 signatures he gathered to launch his campaign.

In the 2022 primary elections, Holle secured victory over 10-year incumbent James Schmidt, marking a shift in his District. Once in office, he focused on addressing dairy-related legislation, including reforming the sale of raw or unpasteurized milk in North Dakota and establishing a definition of milk.

“The weird thing in North Dakota is, in order for you to sell raw milk, you had to have something called herd shares,” Holle explained. “You’d have to buy a portion of the cow, and then legally it would be your animal, so you could then milk it, but that’s not scalable.” Since a herd share is essentially a membership, it allows you to get raw milk from “your own cows.”

Though smaller dairy farms with 10 – 40 cows were difficult to scale, the growing demand for such farms producing raw milk created a niche among communities. 

In his conversations with lawmakers on drafted legislation around milk sale reform, Holle faced continued divisions within his own Republican party, prompting him to reach across the aisle to North Dakota Democrats.

“I went to the other side of the aisle just to have a friendly conversation,” Holle recounted. “They were all gung-ho for it. I’m like, ‘well, even better, I guess then that works.’ And if I wouldn’t have had that conversation, I never would have known what they felt about this.”

Holle’s bill continued to garner diverse opinions, leading to extensive revisions before achieving the final product. He says though he received support from various agricultural groups, the point of contention was whether it was feasible to impose more regulations on farmers selling this product or allow them to sell it without additional rules.

Among the Democrats, Holle found an ally in Representative Hamida Dakane, a Muslim immigrant from Somali Kenya, serving District 10. Together, they co-sponsored bill ND HB1515, facilitating the direct sale of raw milk to consumers.

“Her perspective of raw milk is very similar to mine,” Holle noted. “She was like ‘I don’t know how it’s illegal’ – raw milk – that’s all they drink in Somali. They don’t have pasteurized milk.”

Despite being the fourth attempt to advance the bill, following similar legislative efforts years earlier by previous representatives, Holle and Dakane’s bipartisan efforts succeeded.

Dawson says his attempt was successful because he brought all groups to the table for a discussion on how they could both benefit the consumers who want the raw milk and the farmers so they can maintain the production of high-quality products. 

“Once both sides of the aisle joined in doing a deep dive, it provided that further explanation of why we needed it,” Holle said. “We had over 50 people testify, and there was a strong amount of enthusiasm for it, and on both sides of the aisle.”

Holle affirms his confidence in the state’s ability to continue passing bipartisan legislation, despite North Dakota’s Republican majority in the state House, state Senate, and control of the governorship.

He says maintaining a sense of camaraderie is crucial to overcoming political polarization, remarking, “We’ve lost some of that — kind comments like ‘Well how are you doing today? How are your kids doing?’ And I think that’s what North Dakota and other states need to regain. We may be in different parts of North Dakota or the United States, but we each have values and principles that we align with.”

Holle and Dakane’s bill on raw milk passed 32 to 14 in the House of Representatives and was signed into law by North Dakota’s governor April 25, 2023.

Remaining focused on re-energizing North Dakota dairy, Holle says he is drafting a few new bill ideas, and concentrating on completing his college education. 

Rep. Sara Jacobs


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