Georgia Senators not alone among state legislators in U.S. concerned over foreign ownership of farmland

Aug 16, 2023

INDIANAPOLIS — In response to increased concerns over foreign ownership of U.S. farmland, 24 states have passed some level of ownership restrictions, with 10 doing so this year alone, said Micah Brown, staff attorney for the National Agricultural Law Center.

Lawmakers in Kansas introduced several such bills last session, but none ultimately became law.

“This really has been an issue since the founding of our country,” Brown told a panel at the 2023 National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) on Monday. “It is actually a reason in the Declaration of Independence why we broke away from the crown — because we didn’t like the way the crown dealt with foreign ownership. And, interestingly enough, the newly independent states actually enacted restrictions on foreign ownership because they viewed British subjects, British loyalists as enemies of the states.”

Based on information submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in compliance with the Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act of 1978, foreign investors held an interest in “approximately 40 million acres of U.S. agricultural land (forest land and farmland),” as of December 31, 2021, up by more than 2.4 million acres from 2020.

The 2021 figure — the latest available — represents approximately 3.1 percent of all privately held agricultural land in the United States. And, according to Brown, Canada is the largest investor in U.S. land, sitting at 31% of foreign land holdings, compared to China’s 0.9%.

Political flashpoints — the latest of which came in 2021, when a Chinese company bought land near an Air Force base in North Dakota — have developed into uneven, patchwork foreign ownership laws at the state level because of an absence of comprehensive federal restrictions, Brown argued. 

Since 2021, many states have taken a renewed interest in passing legislation aimed at restricting foreign actors who pose perceived national security risks from obtaining land in their boundaries. Indiana was the only state to add a new law to the books in 2022, Brown said, but 10 more states followed suit this year.

However, Brown said, “All these laws have exceptions to them, so there is still some level of foreign ownership still in just about every state that has even a foreign ownership law.”

Recent legislation has sought to side-step some of the exceptions that accompanied earlier foreign ownership laws.

A bill proposed in Georgia this year by Sen. Brandon Beach, R- Alpharetta, would limit foreign companies and people who are not U.S. citizens from countries designated as a “foreign adversary” by the U.S. Commerce Department from acquiring farmland or other land within 25 miles of a military installation in Georgia. Those countries include China, Cuba, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. 

Republicans said concerns over national security and food security, and particularly related to China, prompted the bill.

“This bill just prohibits the Chinese Communist government from buying our Georgia farmland,” Beach told Atlanta Civic Circle earlier this year.  “… I want to make sure that we aren’t having Communist China running our farms.”

SB 132 passed the Senate  but did not get a vote in the House last session. It’s expected to be taken up again next year, possibly with other bills to limit land holdings by foreigners.

China is chief among many state legislators' lists of possible bad actors, followed closely by Russia, Iran and North Korea, and many states have recently enacted specific restrictions on them, Brown said.

But Zongyuan Zoe Liu, the Maurice R. Greenberg fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, hoped to provide context to address legislators’ fears during a Monday panel, noting that China owns a “very small” percentage of U.S. land.

Yet some fear Chinese ownership could impact food and energy supply chains. Others are also concerned that the Chinese government may, through government or private businesses, influence, access or control U.S. assets and information. 

Brown said there is currently no way to track how resources from foreign-owned lands are being distributed.

Liu’s take-home message was to “follow the money.”

“Chinese investment probably will take some new aspects or some nuances,” Liu said. “It used to be that [until] 2016, Chinese investment would tend to take the format of overseas direct investment. But after 2016, you are starting to see Chinese investment take the form of joint ventures. They tend to be popular with a locally or domestically prestigious institution — either a company or investment bank, such as Goldman Sachs. And, in that case, once you sign a joint venture, you can present to regulators [that] this is not a foreign alien, this is a domestic person.”

Contact Jarred Meeks on Twitter @jarredsmeeks or email him at [email protected]

Jill Jordan Sieder, senior reporter at State Affairs Georgia, contributed to this report.

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Header Image: Sen. Brandon Beach speaks from his seat in the Senate chamber. (Credit: Georgia Senate)