China owns little farmland in the U.S., but that still leaves some lawmakers worried

By: - March 20, 2023 7:33 am

Wind turbines rise up above farmland on the outskirts of the state capital near Middleton, Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Nearly a third of states have laws prohibiting certain foreign businesses and governments from buying agricultural lands within their borders, and more states are looking to join them.

The efforts in at least 11 states are pitched primarily by Republicans as another security front in the nation’s ongoing propaganda battles, primarily with China and Russia. Many lawmakers say they worry about control of our food supply or other natural resources. Critics, though, say the federal government best handles national security, and they point out that the real issue isn’t who owns the food supply, but to whom that food is sold.

In reality, Canadian investors hold the largest amount of foreign-owned land in the United States — about 12.8 million acres, or nearly a third of the total — and most of that is forest land.

Chinese companies own just 383,935 acres, less than 1% of foreign-held acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s an area less than half the size of Rhode Island. Much of the land was acquired in 2013 when a Chinese company bought Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, the nation’s largest pork producer.

Russian investors, according to the USDA, own 73 acres.

Meanwhile, farming advocates have warned that state lawmakers and members of Congress should pay closer attention to massive land purchases by domestic and foreign corporations, pensions, developers and other wealthy interests, which could block young people from getting into the farming business and, eventually, could threaten the United States’ food independence.

The 14 states that currently restrict foreign ownership of agricultural lands have a patchwork of laws, according to the National Agricultural Law Center at the University of Arkansas. They came into being at various points in history, from the Revolutionary War era to the nation’s westward expansion in the late 19th century, through the World War II period and onward to today.

Almost all recent state legislation comes from Republican lawmakers, but some Democrats are on board too. And this winter’s cross-country journey of a Chinese spy balloon brought renewed attention to those efforts.

In New Jersey, for example, Republican legislators filed a bill that would ban foreign ownership of agricultural land and require current foreign owners to sell or transfer their ownership within five years.

“Stopping our food supply from falling into hostile hands is something we should all be mindful of,” said state Sen. Doug Steinhardt, a Republican and main sponsor of New Jersey’s bill, according to The bill has not come up for consideration.

In Missouri, where a law already caps foreign ownership, the House approved a bill that would lower the threshold from 1% to 0.5% of all farmland in the state, and specifically prohibit new investment from China, Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela beginning in late August.

Virginia GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who was elected in 2021 and campaigned in part through tough language on China, has not yet acted on legislation to ban some foreign ownership that the state legislature passed with some bipartisan support last month. He has indicated, however, that he’ll sign the bill. Smithfield Foods is headquartered in his state.

In North Dakota, the U.S. Air Force in January warned about the proposed development of a corn mill by an American subsidiary of a Chinese company on land 12 miles from the Grand Forks Air Force Base. Faced with community outrage, Grand Forks City Council members rejected the plan.

Bills also were filed this year in Arizona, California, Montana, Texas, Utah and Washington state.

And yet even in strongly conservative states, efforts to target foreign ownership can face opposition.

Wyoming lawmakers last month considered a bill that would have banned foreign ownership of more than an acre, including by individuals, and required registration with the secretary of state. Wyoming state Rep. Bill Allemand, a Republican, tried to persuade colleagues before a committee vote that his bill would only affect countries hostile to the United States.

“We cannot buy land in China. We cannot buy industry in Russia. We cannot buy — I don’t even think we want to get off the plane in Iran. So, this is just limited to people who hate us,” Allemand said, according to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Still, opposition in Wyoming was bipartisan, with some GOP members concerned about restricting individual opportunity and whether the proposed ban was constitutional. Allemand’s bill failed in the Wyoming House; a similar Senate bill never made it out of committee.

Rhett Larson, an associate professor of law at Arizona State University, is skeptical of arguments about national security.

“If what we’re worried about is the national security issue, why isn’t the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States considered? Why do we have state legislatures addressing that when we have an interagency committee designed to do this?” Larson asked in an interview. “If this is an attempt to address national security issues, you have run afoul of international trade and investment laws. That’s why we have the State Department to manage these agreements.”

Congress has taken an interest in foreign ownership, with U.S. Sens. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, and Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican, proposing legislation that would prevent China, Iran, North Korea and Russia from buying or leasing farmland.

And the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan agency that serves Congress, issued a report in January — at the request of congressional staff — repeating news reports that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s tracking of foreign ownership is out of date and may have some inaccuracies.

Stateline staff writer Matt Vasilogambros contributed to this report. 

This story was written and produced by Stateline News, a division of Pew Charitable Trusts. The original article can be found here.

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Barbara Barrett
Barbara Barrett

Stateline Barbara Barrett is the managing editor of Stateline. Before joining Pew, Barrett was national editor at McClatchy’s Washington bureau, where she worked with reporters covering Congress and the federal government for the chain’s 30 newsrooms around the country, including the Miami Herald, The Kansas City Star and The Sacramento Bee. She previously was the Washington correspondent and state roving reporter for The News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina, and has worked as a reporter or editor for the York (Pennsylvania) Daily Record, the Tampa Bay (Florida) Times and the Battle Creek (Michigan) Enquirer. Her work includes coverage of state and local policy, veterans affairs, rural issues, immigration, occasional sports events and a lot of hurricanes. She covered the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and was part of the team at The N&O that was a finalist for the Pulitzer for its coverage of Hurricane Floyd. Barrett is a native of North Carolina and a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.