Is foreign ownership of U.S. agricultural land a threat to the U.S.? Elizabeth Warren thinks so.

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Does growing foreign ownership of farmland threaten family farmers, food supply and U.S. national security.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, a leading challenger in the race for the Democratic nomination for president, thinks so.

Warren says she’s so alarmed about foreign ownership of U.S. agricultural land she wants to ban it.

“Foreign companies and foreign countries like China and Saudi Arabia already own 25 million acres of American farmland,” she posted on Medium on March 27, 2019. “That jeopardizes our food security, which threatens our national security, too.”

She certainly has some support among America’s farmers. “Our rural communities are becoming factory farms for foreign corporations,” argues Family Farm Action, a Kansas City-based organization launched in 2017 to fight for America’s family farmers and rural communities.

In 2018, family farmers packed a Missouri House hearing room to support bills banning foreign ownership of agricultural land. They emphasized the values of family farmers and the deep connections that make them stewards of their land and communities. Foreign-owned companies don’t care about the community because they are so far removed from it, they argued.

“I would hate to see what our forefathers would think of us brokering our American soil off to foreign countries,” said Missouri farmer Terry Spence.

Land law is generally state law in the United States and state laws vary widely.

As of 2017, Six states had laws banning foreign ownership of farmland: Hawaii, Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Dakota and Oklahoma.

Oregon’s only restriction was Or. Rev. Stat. §§ 273.255, saying that “Any individual who is 18 years of age or older and who is a citizen of the United States, or has declared an intention to become a citizen, may apply to purchase state lands. “

Warren’s solution? National legislation similar to that enacted in Iowa prohibiting foreign individuals or entities from purchasing farmland for the purchase of farming.

Warren’s acreage figure, drawn from a 2011 Dept. of Agriculture report, is out of date, but it does illustrate a trend.

Foreign investors controlled 13.7 million acres of U.S. farmland in 2004. By 2014, total U.S. farmland under foreign investors’ control was 27.3 million acres, more than twice the level in 2004 and about the size of Tennessee.

By 2016 it was at least 28.3 million acres, according to a report by The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting using data filed pursuant to the 1978 Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act (AFIDA).  7 U.S.C. 3501 et seq. A thorough review of current law on foreign investment of U.S. agricultural land can be found in the Drake Journal of Agricultural Law: Acquisition and Disposition of U.S. Agricultural Land by Foreign Investors: Federal and State Legislative Restrictions, Limitations, and Disclosure Requirements.

Foreign investors acquired at least 1.6 million acres of U.S. agricultural land in 2016, the largest increase in more than a decade, according to the Midwest Center.

The Disclosure Act requires that foreign owners who acquire, sell or gain interest in U.S. agricultural land must file disclosure paperwork, known as the FSA-153 form, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency.

In May 2019, Newsweek made it all sound like the sky is falling, “American farmland is increasingly being bought up by outside investors,” Newsweek wrote. “As NPR noted in a recent report, nearly 30 million acres of U.S. farmland were held by foreign investors in 2015, nearly double the acres owned by foreign investors a decade before.”

That may sound threatening, but the fact is only 2.2 percent of U.S. agricultural land is foreign owned.

And while Warren’s criticism of foreign ownership of agricultural land emphasizes the food security issue, most of that foreign-owned agricultural land is forestland, with pastureland next and then cropland.

The Midwest Center has found that timber companies and renewable energy companies are the biggest group of foreign investors.

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For example, EDP Renewables, a Portuguese renewable energy company, and Enel Green Power, an Italian renewable energy company, both control significant swaths of farmland through long-term leases, according to the Center.

In highlighting Saudi Arabia and China, Warren is also overplaying their role in U.S. farmland ownership, probably to make it appear more threatening.

In truth, Canadian investors owned the most U.S. agricultural land nationwide (6.87 million acres) in 2016, followed by The Netherlands (4.87 million acres) and Germany (1.94 million acres). Chinese investors owned 240,000 acres of U.S. farmland., and Saudi Arabian investors even less, just 35,731 acres, according to The Midwest Center.

The state with the most foreign ownership and investment in 2016 was Maine, which had 3.1 million acres that are foreign-controlled, followed closely by Texas at 3 million acres. Alabama, at 1.6 million acres, Washington, at 1.5 million acres, and Michigan, at 1.3 million acres, rounded out the top five, according to the Midwest Center’s analysis.

Oregon was way down the list, with just 315 plots of agricultural land totaling 792,864 acres under foreign ownership out of a total of about 15.9 million acres of agricultural land. That’s about 5%.

Warren seems to have a plan for just about everything. In this case, her plan is wrong. Foreign ownership of agricultural land in the United States or Oregon isn’t a crisis by any stretch of the imagination, no matter how much Warren wants to make it one.

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