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As foreign ownership of U.S. land rises; states take aim to curtail it
Ohio Correspondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio – In 2021, a Chinese company bought land near an Air Force base in Grand Forks, N.D., sending lawmakers in to a frenzy.
Lawmakers feared that China, which many policymakers view as a strategic adversary even though it’s the Untied States top trading partner outside North America, could gain control over the U.S. food and energy supply, as well as a hold on markets and critical infrastructure.
USDA records indicate 40 million acres of the nation’s 1.3 billion acres of agricultural land is owned by foreigners. Almost half of the foreign-owned land is forest. USDA records show that a third of the 40 million foreign-owned acres are held by Canadian interests, while Chinese interests hold less than 400,000 acres.
The share of agricultural land owned by foreign interests is increasing, according to the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, and the pace at which the foreign share is growing has also risen. While it grew by an average of 800,000 acres yearly from 2011 to 2015, it rose 2.2 million acres per year from 2015 to 2021.
Since 2021, a number of new state laws aimed at limiting foreign land ownership popped up across the nation. While there is no federal law that restricts foreign investors from acquiring agricultural land in the United States, foreign ownership in U.S. land is currently restricted in 24 states: Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho and Wisconsin.
According to the latest report from the Agriculture Foreign Investment Disclosure Act, 2.2 percent of Indiana land is held by foreign entities. That’s about 434,000 acres of land. 
In early 2022, Indiana Senate Bill 388, titled “Foreign gifts and ownership of agricultural land,” passed the Senate by a 49-1 vote and the House unanimously.
Indiana State Senator Jean Leising, who authored the bill along with Senators Mark Messmer and James Tomes, said they passed the law to protect agriculture land from those who might not have U.S. interests in mind.
“Agriculture is a $35 billion industry in Indiana annually,” Leising said. “And we have to make sure that we don’t put that big industry in jeopardy. Plus, it’s our food supply as well.”
The law prohibits foreign entities from owning land in Indiana, with exceptions. The law does not apply to land used for research or experimental purposes. It also allows foreign entities to own up to 320 acres of land for crops or up to 10 acres for timber production. Land used for raising or producing eggs is also excluded.
“Since this was signed in ’22, and there was no debate on this issue in 2023, I’m not actually looking for any additional legislation right now,” she said.
In Ohio, Peggy Kirk Hall, Director of Ohio Agricultural Law at Ohio State University, says Ohio passed a law restricting foreign ownership of land early in 2023. Ohio’s new “Save our farmland and protect our national security act” became effective Oct. 3.
“The law limits who can own agricultural land in the state and requires persons or entities who cannot own Ohio farmland to forfeit title to the property, which the State will then sell,” Hall said. “The purpose of the law is to recognize that Ohio has substantial and compelling interests in protecting its agricultural production.”
The law is not an absolute restriction on foreign ownership of land. Instead, the law prohibits agricultural land ownership by any “person” listed on a registry compiled by Ohio’s Secretary of State. A “person” can include an individual, firm, company, trust, business or commercial entity, organization, joint venture, non-profit, or non-U.S. government.
Kentucky’s legislation, House Bill 500, prevents foreign residents, businesses and financial agents of specific countries from purchasing Kentucky agricultural land or taking part in state agriculture programs.
 Rep. Richard Heath (R-Mayfield), the primary sponsor of HB 500, said it is a “preemptive strike” to protect Kentucky farmland and national security.
Under the legislation, 24 counties in Kentucky would be subject to the ban including China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Russia. A 2021 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found less than one percent of Kentucky agricultural land was foreign owned, well below the national average.
There’s a chance that some form of these state laws will become federal law. In the current session of Congress, the Senate approved an amendment to the National Defense Appropriations Act to restrict certain investments from China, Iran, North Korea and Russia.
Micah Brown, a staff attorney at the National Agricultural Law Center, said that this isn’t the first time we’ve seen such laws aimed at stemming foreign land ownership.
Brown believes that even if the amendment becomes federal law, other states will likely continue pushing their own legislation in order to add even more restrictions.