Bipartisan group of lawmakers push to restrict foreign ownership of Missouri farmland
Missouri opened up 1% of its agricultural land to foreign ownership in 2013. The federal government estimates it has already surpassed that.
A Soil and Water Conservation District technician consults with a farmer in a cover crop field of rye grass. Cover crops are used to restore soil nutrients and prevent erosion (Photo by Edwin Remsberg and USDA-SARE).
Citing concerns about the environment, food security and the fate of family farmers, Missouri legislators have filed several bills that would restrict foreign ownership of agricultural land.
Both Democratic and Republican senators have pre-filed bills ahead of the January start of the 2023 Missouri General Assembly session to halt foreign purchases of Missouri farmland.
“Just at the basic level, I think it’s the question of, ‘Do you think somebody who’s not American should own Missouri ground?’” said Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring. “And, for me, I think that answer is no.”
Missouri lawmakers voted in 2013 to allow up to 1% of the state’s farmland to be held by foreign entities. Soon thereafter, a Chinese company purchased Smithfield Foods, which operates Missouri’s largest industrial hog farms, and its 40,000 acres of Missouri farmland.
Since then, the politics surrounding America’s relationship with China have shifted dramatically. While nearly every Republican in the legislature supported the measure at the time, it is now regularly used as a political cudgel in Missouri GOP primaries.
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, during his run for attorney general in 2016, hammered a GOP rival over the vote, and Missouri Attorney General Eric’s Schmitt’s support for the 2013 bill was featured in attack ads during his successful run for U.S. Senate this year.
Opposition to foreign ownership of Missouri farmland creates unlikely allies.
Environmental groups argue foreign-owned industrial agricultural operations, like cattle and hog feedlots, can harm waterways while some conservative legislators simply oppose the idea wholecloth.
Groups that support small farmers say they’re concerned foreign ownership can artificially drive up property values and price Missourians out of farming in their own state.
“They’re not looking at it saying, ‘I’m going to plant a crop and how much money of the profit do I have to return to capital for land purchases?’” said Joe Maxwell, president of Farm Action and former Democratic lieutenant governor of Missouri. “Rather, theirs is long-term investment…and that artificially elevates that land value.”
Eigel has a bill that would prohibit new sales of farmland to foreign entities.
“I don’t want to open up our agricultural ground or really any of our ground to foreign owners or foreign actors that we may not know or really understand the real intentions of,” he said.
His Democratic colleague, Sen. Doug Beck of Afton, has proposed something similar to Eigel’s bill for several years.
“Our farmland is a finite, precious resource,” Beck said.
Sen. Rusty Black, R-Chillicothe, said foreign ownership of Missouri farmland has become politicized in recent years, though it has not had dire consequences across the state. He noted Smithfield is still operated by local employees.
“Smithfield is largely the same as before,” Black said. “Smithfield has the local management, same employees and contributes nearly $2 billion in economic activity to the state of Missouri.”
Black is sponsoring a bill that would eliminate the 1% threshold, which he says would mean “no new foreign business ownership of agriculture land in Missouri would be authorized.”
The Missouri Department of Agriculture’s latest report shows that as of March 2021, about 0.36% of the state’s farmland is owned by foreign entities with only 0.16% of that counting toward the 1% cap. The other 0.2% is either not used for farmland, was owned before 1978, amounts to less than five acres or is owned by a non-citizen who resides in the U.S.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, however, estimates that 1.1% of Missouri agricultural land is held by foreign owners, meaning the state has already passed its 1% cap.
Citing concerns about China, states mull limits on foreign ownership of farmland
Investigate Midwest, a nonprofit newsroom covering agriculture, found even USDA’s data are not complete. The agency largely relies on voluntary reporting, and its database doesn’t list owners for more than 3.1 million acres.
Beck said he felt his bill was reasonable because it would halt foreign sales so the state can get a better handle on tracking land ownership.
Tim Gibbons, communications director for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, said foreign ownership of Missouri farmland “is a symptom of an even larger problem — the corporate, multinational takeover of our farm and food system,” noting that 50% of U.S. pork production is controlled by two foreign companies.
“In one generation, 90% of Missouri hog producers were put out of business,” Gibbons said in a statement.
He added: “We need our elected representatives to pass laws that support family farmers and consumers, our rural communities and economies, and a safe, decentralized food system.”
Critics of foreign farm ownership often say there’s danger in having large swaths of the food supply controlled by foreign entities.
They typically cite China, which owns more than 40% of the foreign-owned acreage in Missouri reported in the state’s data. In USDA’s data, Italy is the leading owner of Missouri farmland with twice as many acres as any other country.
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