Foreign Ownership Of Ag Land A Struggle For Lawmakers In Wyoming And DC

Brett Moline, of the Wyoming Farm Bureau, said his organization supports restricting foreign ownership of U.S. agriculture land. Even though the percentage of overall farmland owned by foreign investors is small, it’s a situation that could quickly get out of hand if left unchecked.

John Thompson

November 12, 20237 min read

Combines work to harvest wheat in a Laramie County field near Cheyenne.
Combines work to harvest wheat in a Laramie County field near Cheyenne. (Getty Images)

Foreign ownership of United States farmland is increasing and although nations considered friendly to U.S. interests are the largest investors, legislators at the state and federal levels view the trend as a threat that needs to be dealt with.

It’s those nations that are on not-so-friendly relations with America that have state and national officials worried, especially for potential national security impacts. It’s been debated for months in the Wyoming Legislature and on Capitol Hill.

But legislating a solution isn’t going to be easy. There are constitutional questions, and placing restrictions on a free market for land is a tough pill for some to swallow.

In Wyoming, foreign investors own 431,574 acres of farmland. About two-thirds of that is controlled by nations considered friendly to U.S. interests. The report shows Wyoming’s total land area is 62.1 million acres, and 25 million acres is privately held agricultural land. The proportion of privately held farmland to foreign held farmland is 1.7%.

Canadians own 105,258 acres in Wyoming. According to the report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, investors from the United Kingdom own 87,192, followed by Germany at 44,902, the Netherlands at 9,374, and Italy at 8,230 and acres.

The FSA report places the remaining 176,618 acres in Wyoming that is owned by foreigners in the “all others” category.

The report does not break out the “all others” by state, only by region. It shows the major foreign landholders in the western region as Canada, Belgium, Australia, Germany, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. All of those countries own at least 100,000 acres in the Western states.

Among the countries listed in the “all others” category and considered unfriendly to U.S. interests, Chinese investors own 51,349 acres in the Western region, Iran owns 601 acres and the Russian Federation owns 52 acres in the West. North Korea is not listed in the report.

Action In Other States

Some 24 states have passed legislation aimed at restricting foreign investment in agricultural land. Last month, Arkansas announced that it will force the sale of 160 acres there owned by a Chinese company. It is the first state to force a foreign country, considered an adversary of the U.S., to divest itself of assets in America.

Other states have placed restrictions on foreign land ownership near U.S. military bases.

A report filed this week by The Maine Wire, a news outlet in Maine, states that more than 100 Chinese-owned rural properties there have been linked to an illicit cannabis growing network. The information was obtained from an unclassified memo from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Texas has the largest amount of foreign-held U.S. agricultural land with about 5.3 million acres. Maine has the second largest amount of foreign-owned agriculture land with just over 3.6 million acres followed by Colorado with 1.9 million acres.

The Politics

During the 2023 session of the Wyoming Legislature, Rep. Dalton Banks, R-Cowley, brought House Bill 88, which would have banned any foreign ownership of more than 1 acre of agricultural land, but contained a grandfather clause for current owners.

In October, Banks told Cowboy State Daily he is altering this bill to focus on foreign ownership from China, Iran, Russia and North Korea to avoid negatively affecting countries that the U.S. and its businesses have positive relationships with, such as Turkey, which is connected to trona production in Wyoming.

He said the bill would also include a reciprocity clause that would prohibit ownership to those from foreign countries that restrict American property ownership in their countries.

Rep. Bill Allemand, R-Midwest, brought similar legislation with House Bill 116, which would have banned all property ownership of more than 1 acre in the state by people, businesses or governments from Russia, China or other nations designated as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Both bills failed, but both legislators plan to bring their bills back during the 2024 legislative session.

In addition, U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman, R-Wyoming, recently voiced concern about Chinese ownership of U.S. farmland. She said more than one-third of Chinese-owned land in the U.S. belongs to Smithfield Foods, which owns a large hog production operation in southern Utah.

Hageman said it’s important that Wyoming and the federal government address these issues legislatively.

She’s co-sponsored a bill that would prohibit China from buying American agricultural land and another piece of legislation that would prevent all foreign countries from purchasing American property near sensitive national security interests, such as military bases.

Another bill that she co-sponsored would prohibit President Joe Biden from selling oil out of its strategic petroleum reserves to China.

“It relates to our supply chain, our food security, our national security,” Hageman said. “All of those are issues that have ties directly from Wyoming to China and the South Pacific.”

‘We Are Worried’

Brett Moline, spokesman for the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation, said his organization supports restricting foreign ownership of U.S. agriculture land. Even though the percentage of overall farmland owned by foreign investors is small, it’s a situation that could quickly get out of hand if left unchecked.

“Foreign ownership of U.S. ag land is a legitimate concern,” Moline said. “Granted, right now it might not be the largest percentage of ownership, but we are worried about where we are going to go. In some nations, a large amount of the assets are owned by out-of-country interests and we don’t want that to happen in the U.S.”

Moline cited the water that runs south out of Wyoming into the Colorado River drainage that is used to grow alfalfa in Arizona by foreign companies as an example. He said that alfalfa production is being exported.

“That alfalfa is leaving the country and not being used domestically when we have a need for it here,” Moline said. “If it was domestically owned that production would have a lot better chance of staying in the U.S. and generating economic activity here.”

A Wedge Issue In Wyoming

In a Sept. 9 guest column for Cowboy State Daily, Rep. Barry Crago, R-Buffalo, wrote about the failure of HB 116 and Allemand blaming the bill’s failure on legislators who are not members of the Wyoming Freedom Caucus.

Crago stated that he agrees with the intent of the legislation – that foreign adversarial governments should not be allowed to buy up Wyoming land – but said the bill was shortsighted and should not be used as a wedge to separate Republicans.

“In reality, the bill failed because it was a bad bill,” Crago said. “Simply because the basis of a bill is a good idea does not automatically make the bill good.”

Because HB 116 would have required Wyoming business entities to report ownership interests to county clerks and the Secretary of State, it’s an unprecedented invasion of privacy, he said. Owning stock in any particular entity is none of the state’s business.

Further, Crago wrote that the bill would grow government because county clerks don’t have the staff or technology to implement its requirements. It would also chase good companies and thousands of jobs out of Wyoming because of its adverse effects on the ownership of minerals.

“To the citizens of Wyoming, I submit this is a very slippery slope and a scary way for the state of Wyoming to do business,” Crago said. “Not to mention, it directly violates Article I, Section 29 of the Wyoming Constitution.”

Article I, Section 29 of the Wyoming Constitution states: “Rights of aliens. No distinction shall ever be made by law between resident aliens and citizens as to the possession, taxation, enjoyment and descent of property.”

Land Use – The USDA Report

The USDA report shows that most of the land in Wyoming under foreign ownership, 332,525 acres, is in pasture. There are 45,698 acres under foreign ownership listed as crop land in Wyoming and 1,628 in forest. Of the total 154 parcels owned by foreigners, 46,766 acres are listed under “other ag” and 4,957 acres are listed as “non-ag.”

The report shows Albany County has the most acres under foreign ownership at 109,248, followed by Carbon County at 75,456 acres, Campbell County at 62,785 acres, Sheridan County at 40,130 and Crook County with 30,026 acres.

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John Thompson

Features Reporter