I was on a conference call in August and one of the participants asked the question: who are the two largest farmland owners in the United States? The first was easy, we all knew Bill Gates was making headlines with his farmland purchases. He currently owns 242,000 acres in 18 states. Then someone suggested Ted Turner, but he mostly owns rangeland, not tillable farmland. The answer was China. This was a revelation to me, although I guess it shouldn’t have been since they own Smithfield Foods. It got me thinking about how the American food system is owned and the issue of American food security.
In 1978, Congress passed the Foreign Investment in Agriculture Disclosure Act, allowing the USDA to begin collecting data on foreign investment in farmland. According to 2020 USDA data, 37.6 million acres of farmland is owned by foreigners, or about 2.9%. That doesn’t seem like a lot until you realize it’s almost the size of Iowa.
An important consideration in this question is that foreign investment in the United States comes from companies and not from countries. That is, except for China. Communist Chinese companies that buy here are basically controlled by the government. While other foreign corporations may own US farmland, the vast majority is private or public. While it is true that Canadian companies own 29% of US farmland owned by foreigners, these companies may have investors from all over the world, not just in Canada.
Agricultural land includes land used for crops, pasture and woodland. Much of the land owned by foreigners is forested. Maine is a good example of a state with 3.3 million acres of foreign ownership, but almost all of it is forest land owned by logging companies in the northern half of the state.
In its annual report, the USDA mentions the trends observed in terms of foreign ownership in recent years. Since 2015, the amount of agricultural land acquired by foreign interests has increased to 3.3 million acres per year. But, the previous six years averaged just 0.8 million acres per year. Some states have established regulations regarding foreign ownership. Iowa, for example, limits foreign ownership of farmland to a few exceptions, including land held in debt. However, this land must be sold within two years. Idaho prohibits foreign ownership of public lands offered for sale. However, many states have no restrictions. Missouri actually changed its foreign ownership law to allow China to buy Smithfield Foods.
As food security becomes a bigger issue in the future, we should consider who is buying farmland and how much they are buying. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many grocery store shelves were empty. Do we want a repeat of that? I do not think so. As food security goes hand in hand with poverty, as a nation we should think about how we can overcome the next food crisis. Since many of our slaughterhouses are foreign-owned, should we also allow more foreign owners of farmland? While we export a lot of food around the world, we should try to keep those profits in the hands of family farmers, not foreign investors.
Bruce Shultz is vice-president of the National Farmers Organization. He and his wife Wendy operate a cow and calf ranch in Raynesford, Montana.