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Foreign investors buying U.S. farmland worries some states


COLUMBUS, Ohio — Data from the USDA show that foreign investors control, either through direct ownership or long-term leases, at least 28.3 million acres of U.S. farmland valued at $52.2 billion. That area is about the size of the state of Ohio.

Foreign investors acquired at least 1.6 million acres of U.S. agricultural land in 2016, the largest increase in more than a decade. Between 2005-15 the most dramatic increase in foreign holdings appeared to surround forestland, with the number doubling.

A 1978 federal law, known as the Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act, requires foreign entities to report transactions of farmland to the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. The data covers the years 1900-2016.

The state with the most foreign ownership and investment is Maine, which has 3.1 million acres that are foreign-controlled, followed closely by Texas at 3 million. Rounding out the top five are Alabama (1.6 million), Washington (1.5 million), and Michigan (1.3 million).

News of growing foreign ownership of U.S. farmland is raising red flags in farming communities, and efforts to limit foreign ownership have gained traction.

“This is about food security for foreign investors, and it needs to be about food security for us,” said Jake Davis, policy director for Family Farm Action, a coalition of family farmers and advocates supporting limits on foreign ownership.

Davis said the organization is working with lawmakers in Ohio and Missouri to introduce bills banning foreign ownership. Already, six states have laws banning foreign ownership of farmland: Iowa, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Mississippi, and North Dakota.

In the United States, laws surrounding land ownership differ from state to state, with some placing strict rules on foreign land ownership, while others have been dubbed “free-for-alls.”

“Texas is kind of a free-for-all, so they don’t have a limit on how much land can be owned,” explained Ty Higgins, Ohio Farm Bureau director of media relations. “You look at Iowa and they restrict it; no land in this state is owned by a foreign entity.

“Once a foreign entity buys up however many acres they want, Americans might never be able to secure that land again. Once we lose it, we may lose it for good.”

Higgins expressed concern over productive farmland being converted for purposes outside of agriculture, impacting food production. Ohio, like Texas, also has no restrictions, and nearly half a million acres of prime farmland are held by foreign-owned entities.

In the northwestern corner of Ohio, south of Toledo, companies from the Netherlands have purchased 64,000 acres for wind farms. There are two counties in this region with the highest concentration of foreign-owned farmland – more than 41,000 acres each. One of those is Paulding County, where three wind farms straddle the Ohio-Indiana line.

In 2016, Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods (the largest pork producer in the world) bought out a few grain elevators and expanded its grain operation in the Marion County area of Ohio. The company now owns 146,000 acres of prime U.S. farmland nationwide.

Also nationwide, Canadian individuals and entities own the most land, at 4.7 million acres valued at $4.6 billion. Netherlands is a close second at 4.5 million acres, valued at $6 billion. In Ohio alone, Germany owns the most farmland at 71,000 acres.

Guidelines are in place in each state in this region. In Illinois, for example, any foreign person or corporation that acquires or purchases agricultural land must report the purchase/acquisition to the state director of agriculture within 90 days. In Indiana, the number of acres that non-citizens can own is capped at 320.

In Tennessee, foreign corporations must obtain a certificate of authority from the secretary of state before they can conduct business (which doesn’t necessarily include owning land). In Kentucky, foreign corporations must be licensed to do business in the state.