Biggest Foreign Owner of ‘Ag Land’ Isn’t Who You Think

If an editor used standard punctuation to relate the emotion expressed by Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst in a recent Capitol Hill discussion of foreign ownership of U.S. land, it would look something like this:

“… foreign persons hold an interest in approximately 40! Million! Acres! Of U.S. ag! Land! That’s more total acres than make up my entire home state! Of Iowa!”

The alarm by Ernst was purely intentional. Foreign ownership of U.S. land has always been a hot poker to fire up farm state politicians whenever a perceived threat, like the “Chinese spy balloon” Ernst soon referenced, comes into view.

Ernst also mentioned her “concern” of the Chinese-owned Fufeng Group’s intent to build a corn processing plant near the Grand Forks (ND) Air Force Base. Two days before the Feb. 9 Senate hearing where she expressed those worries, however, the Grand Forks City Council voted 5-0 to deny Fufeng any “infrastructure… permits” for the $700 million plant.

Still, who does have title to the 40 million acres––and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) phrasing here is important–of “U.S. ag land owned by foreign persons” and how much of America’s 900 million arable acres are owned by Chinese nationals?

In the latter case, the Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act report (or AFIDA) shows that, as of Dec. 31, 2021, Chinese entities owned 383,935 acres of U.S. ag land, or just under 1 percent of the 40 million foreign-owned acres and a microscopic 0.04 of 1 percent of total U.S. farmland.

To put those percentages into some perspective, China’s holdings in American ag land amount to just half of all foreign-owned U.S. land devoted to “homesteads and roads,” reports AFIDA.

The biggest foreign owners of U.S. ag land, our northern neighbors, dwarf Chinese holdings. “Canadian investors own the largest amount of reported foreign-held agricultural and non-agricultural land, with 31 percent, or 12.8 million acres,” AFIDA notes.

Moreover, “Foreign persons from an additional four countries, the Netherlands with 12 percent, Italy with 7 percent, the United Kingdom with 6 percent, and Germany with 6 percent, collectively held 12.4 million acres or 31 percent of the foreign-held acres in the United States.”

So, five of America’s strongest, most dependable allies–Canada, Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Netherlands–own 62 percent, or 62 times more than China, of all foreign-owned U.S. “ag land.”

Equally revealing is where and what those U.S. holdings are. For example, AFIDA shows that Texas is home to the largest amount of foreign-owned land (5.3 million acres) followed by Maine (3.6 million acres), and Colorado (1.9 million acres).

Didn’t think Maine or Colorado–and maybe not even Texas–would be in the top three?

This is why “ag land” and not “farmland” is the defining term to foreign ownership of U.S. land. Foreign owners seem twice as interested in the natural resources already on the land–principally timber and pasture–than any potential crop, like corn or soybeans.

Indeed, according to AFIDA, “Forty-seven percent of the reported foreign interest holdings… are timber or forest, with cropland accounting for 29 percent of the total” and “pasture and other agricultural land total(ing) 22 percent…”

That means more than two out of three foreign-owned acres in the U.S. are either in timber or pasture and that less than one in three acres are in crops.

As for Ernst’s native Iowa, 507,519 of its 35.8 million acres, or 1.5 percent, are foreign-owned. Neighboring Illinois, with almost the exact amount of farmland as the Hawkeye State, however, holds almost two times as much foreign-owned ag land. 

Even more revealing is that nearly 300,000 of those foreign-owned Iowa acres, or 60 percent, belong to people from either the Netherlands or Italy. By contrast, the amount owned by the Chinese is so small that AFIDA lumps it into an “All Others” group.

But facts rarely cool heated rhetoric, especially when there are so many political points to score and so many exclamation points going unused.

© 2023 ag comm

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