Cat Urbigkit: Bill Would Ban Foreign Ownership of Ag Lands in Wyoming

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

At the end of 2021, foreign investors owned 426,618 acres of agricultural land in Wyoming, according to a report from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS). Foreign ownership and investment in U.S. agricultural land nearly doubled from 2010 through 2020. While the Wyoming acreage is a small amount of the more than 40 million acres of private ag lands held by foreign interests in the United States, members of the Wyoming Legislature want the trend to end.

A bill filed for legislative consideration would prohibit foreign ownership of agricultural land in Wyoming. HB88 is sponsored by Representatives Dalton Banks, Bill Allemand, Jeremy Haroldson and Ken Pendergraft and Senators Tim French, Dan Laursen and Tim Salazar.

The bill proposes: “No foreign government, foreign business or foreign person, or any agent, trustee or fiduciary thereof, shall purchase or otherwise acquire agricultural land in Wyoming. A foreign government, foreign business or foreign person, or any agent, trustee or fiduciary thereof, that owns or holds agricultural land in Wyoming on July 1, 2023 may continue to own or hold the agricultural land but shall not sell or otherwise dispose of the agricultural land to another foreign government, foreign business or foreign person.”

The bill defines agricultural land as lands outside of incorporated areas that are used principally for farming or ranching or for cultivation of the soil for production of crops, the production of timber products or grasses for forage, the rearing, feeding, grazing or management of livestock, a farmstead structure, or for any other agricultural purpose.

The Wyoming Republican Party and the state’s major agricultural organizations have adopted policy positions opposing foreign ownership of ag lands in Wyoming, although several of the ag groups oppose ownership by specific foreign interests (such as China and Russia) rather that all foreign ownership. 

State Rankings

The federal Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act of 1978 requires all foreign persons/entities holding agricultural land to file a report detailing its land ownership to the Farm Service Agency, and to report any further ownership transactions involving those lands. 

The ERS reports that while foreign persons or entities hold acreages in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, the majority is concentrated in the South and the West, although Maine has substantial acreage (20% of the state’s private ag lands) under foreign ownership. Texas has the largest amount of foreign-held ag lands, with 5.3 million acres, followed by Maine with 3.6 million acres, and Colorado with 1.9 million acres.

Hawaii has the second largest percentage of foreign-held ag lands at 9.2 percent. Washington, Alabama, and Florida have the next largest percentages of foreign-held ag lands.

Foreign Ownership in Wyoming

In Wyoming, 154 parcels of ag lands are owned by foreigners, with parcels in 20 of the state’s 23 counties. Only Johnson, Platte and Weston counties have no reported foreign ownership of private ag lands.

Albany County has the highest number of foreign-owned private ag acres at 109,248 acres, followed by Carbon County’s 75,456 acres, Campbell County’s 62,785 acres, and Sheridan County’s 40,130 acres.

Underreported

More than 100 members of Congress signed a letter to the U.S. Government Accountability Office last October suggesting that the estimates of foreign ownership of ag lands is underreported, as ag reporters have long asserted, as foreign corporations create U.S. subsidiaries to purchase and manage their properties.

The letter noted: “While investors from Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom are regularly among the top foreign investors, investors from countries such as China and Saudi Arabia have increased their investment in U.S. agricultural land. One of the largest groups of foreign investors is renewable energy companies, causing some to raise concerns that farmland is being removed from agricultural production.

The letter continued: “Some states have imposed restrictions or constraints on foreign ownership of U.S. farmland, including the size of land-holdings and limits on leases, such as the number of years. Concerns about national security, including a Chinese company’s purchase of farmland in North Dakota near an Air Force base that is home to top-secret drone technology, drive fears of foreign ownership of U.S. agricultural land. Concerns have also been expressed that foreign investment in U.S. farmland could result in foreign control of available U.S. farmland, especially prime agricultural lands, and possibly lead to foreign control over food production and food prices. However, others believe that foreign investment provides an opportunity for agricultural expansion.”

While Canadian investors hold the largest percentage of foreign-owned ag lands in America, there is increasing concern with investments from companies with ties to the Chinese government.

In 2021, China’s Fufeng Group purchased 370 acres of ag land near Grand Forks for its proposed wet corn mill.

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission noted: “The mill will be located about 12 miles from the Grand Forks Air Force Base, which houses some of the United States’ top intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. The location of the land close to the base is particularly convenient for monitoring air traffic flows in and out of the base, among other security-related concerns.”

Outsized Impacts

In late 2018, the Saudi Ministry of Energy and Agriculture’s ban on the production of green fodder in Saudi Arabia went into effect.

The ban was enacted to reduce pressure on the country’s renewable water resources and requires dairy farms to import green fodder (alfalfa) rather than use the kingdom’s water resources to grow this needed feed.

That’s why Saudi Arabian companies have been purchasing and leasing ag lands in Arizona and California, where they grow alfalfa and export their crops back to the kingdom, while worsening the water crisis in the western United States as towns and homeowners experience wells running dry as aquifers are drained. It’s not just the Saudis, as the United Arab Emirates and China are doing the same. China and Japan are the top markets for U.S. alfalfa hay exports, with China responsible for 55% of alfalfa exports in 2021.

At least 10 states have already enacted restrictions on foreign ownership of land within their borders. A few states have enacted outright bans on foreign ownership of land with few exceptions, while others restrict the size of such purchases, or provide percentage totals that cannot be exceeded statewide. Some of these state laws apply not just to agricultural lands, but any land.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

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