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Memo 10.10.2022 10 minutes

This Land is Beijing’s Land

Iowa’s Agricultural Economy Under Threat From Trade War With China

China is buying American farmland at a brisk pace.

Foreign ownership of American farmland has raised bipartisan concern from all levels of government, from governors like Ron DeSantis of Florida to senators such as Iowa’s Chuck Grassley and Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow. Foreign ownership of American farmland went from 1 percent in 2000 to 2.9 percent in 2020, a 290 percent increase over the past twenty years.

With the rise in foreign ownership in American cropland come new security risks. Recently, Chinese companies have been buying agricultural land close to American military bases, raising concerns about their intentions.

Historically, the United States did not systematically collect data on foreign ownership of American agricultural land, largely because such ownership was minimal. Spurred by fears of OPEC countries buying American cropland in 1978, Congress passed the Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act (AFIDA) to track foreign ownership of American agricultural land.

AFIDA requires foreign investors of American agricultural land to notify the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) of any acquisitions of American farmland. The USDA compiles these notices into a database that is used to create annual reports on foreign investment in American agriculture.

While the annual reports are available to the public, the database listing all the individual parcels, while not confidential, is not widely accessible. Through a FOIA request I got access to the parcel database, which provides data on individual parcels, including the value of the parcel and its ownership, along with other data not provided in the annual reports. 

Using the parcel database, it is possible to analyze the rise of Chinese investment in American agricultural land and locate where Chinese investors bought their properties. 

Chinese investment in American agricultural land

From 2010 to 2020, the total value of land owned by Chinese investors grew more than 20-fold, from $81 million in 2010 to $1.8 billion in 2020.

As shown below, Chinese ownership of agricultural parcels is scattered across the country: this map highlights every county in the U.S. with at least one agricultural parcel owned by foreign investors from China. The greatest ownership is in Texas (160,717 acres owned by Chinese investors), North Carolina (49,252 acres), and Missouri (42,875 acres), but the problem goes behind these concentrations. 

While this problem is receiving more attention today, owing to growing concerns about China, the problem is hardly new. As the available data on acres owned by Chinese investors shows, there were three major periods of farmland purchases by Chinese investors: 1989–1990, 2012–2013, and 2017–2018.

Each period marked a major transaction involving a party with a close relationship to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In 1989, Sinochem, a Chinese state-owned chemical company, bought US Agri-Chemicals, an American agricultural chemical company. The purchase led Sinochem to own 11,263 acres of land in Florida, with the Fort Meade Chemical Plant being the biggest asset they own in the region.

In 2013, the Chinese company WH-Group bought Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the world, for $4.72 billion. The Bank of China, a state-owned bank, provided $4 billion in loans to support the purchase. The purchase in land value was over $500 million, with Shuanghui acquiring a total of 146,537.8 acres in the deal.

In 2017 and 2018, Chinese automotive billionaire Guangxin Sun bought hundreds of thousands of acres on the Texan-Mexican border. Through various subsidiaries, he bought hundreds of thousands of acres in Val Verde county, Texas. Through one of these subsidiaries, Brazos Highland Properties LP, Sun bought over one thousand acres of land worth over $90 million. The purchased acres in Val Verde county were close to Laughlin Air Force Base, where pilots are trained.

In 2022, the Chinese food company Fufeng Group bought hundreds of acres of land in North Dakota, 20 minutes from Grand Forks Air Force Base. This base hosts many of the drones that the United States uses across the planet. Grand Forks Air Force Base also hosts a space networking center.

There could be agricultural properties owned by Chinese investors that we do not know about. The AFIDA program is only able to dig so far through ownership documents to trace the ultimate beneficial owner of the LLCs that are often the owners of record of agricultural land.

Two trends motivate Chinese investment in American farmland. First is the overt strategy of Chinese companies to secure China’s food supply by “going global.” Most Chinese agricultural investment abroad has been closer to home, with 98 percent of Chinese investment in agriculture being outside of North America.

But China is using food security as a pretext for military intelligence purposes. Chinese companies may buy land next to military bases under the guise of windmill development or building a corn mill, but with a covert intention in mind. Chinese purchases of land next to American military bases occurs internationally as well. In 2021, 700 properties near American military bases in Japan were acquired by individuals with ties to the Chinese government.

Fighting back

For an individual American citizen concerned with Chinese investment in American agriculture, there are several things you can do to fight the problem. Through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), anyone can request non-classified information from the government. Every agency typically has an email or a portal to send a FOIA request.

Alternatively, if you have a bit of money and want to automate the process, you can use Muckrock to submit FOIA requests. They make it easy to send a FOIA request. More importantly, because FOIA requests are public, it is easy to search for FOIAs other people did and use them or apply the same email but for a different subject area. Muckrock also provides guides on how to do FOIA requests effectively as well.

There is a variety of valuable information you can seek.

For the Farm Service Agency, which processes AFIDA data nationally, you can go to their FOIA website to send them an email directly or use their FOIA portal to submit requests. For states that require investors to report on this data, you can FOIA the office that hosts the data if it is not public.

The forms that foreign owners of American agriculture land file (FSA-153) are public information. You can either FOIA your local Farm Service Agency office for them or directly FOIA the main USDA office in D.C. for the FSA-153 forms.

If you are inclined to, there is room for lobbying your local state representative or senator to reform how individuals and companies from adversarial countries do business in your state. The Lone Star Infrastructure Protection Act, for instance, bans Texas businesses and governments from contracting with entities owned or controlled by individuals from China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran if critical infrastructure is at stake. You can reach out to your legislator to advocate for your state to pass this type of legislation.

State governments can also pass legislation to ban the purchase of agricultural land by foreign investors. Hawaii, Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Dakota, and Oklahoma already ban foreign ownership of farmland so it is not a new idea.

More broadly, there are solutions that can solve this on the federal level. The Secretary of Agriculture could be added to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, to ensure that major agricultural transactions get tracked if they are near properties of national interest.

While foreign ownership of American agricultural land is an issue of national interest, this is an issue that an individual citizen can make a difference in with just a bit of legwork.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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