(InvestigateTV) – American soil is becoming less and less American when it comes to ownership. Foreign companies are snapping up land across the country, including millions of acres of farmland.
But the conversation about foreign agricultural policy is difficult to have, according to some farmers, lawmakers and researchers, because the true level of overseas ownership is largely unknown.
“We should know, based upon whether it’s a national security issue, a food security issue… who’s going to be the next generation of farmers and feed our neighbors,” said farmer and former Missouri Democratic lieutenant governor Joe Maxwell. “We should know who’s buying up America’s farmland and for what purpose they’re doing it.”
Despite a federal law requiring foreign transactions of agricultural land be reported to and recorded by the federal government, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s database appears to be missing significant acres of land.
Records of who owns what don’t match. Reconciling federal, state and county records on land ownership is all but impossible. It is unclear whether the discrepancies originate from the companies’ reporting, the forms or the USDA’s recording of the land.
“If we don’t have accurate information on who holds the title or who holds the deed, then we’re no longer even upholding the basic system of property rights in the United States,” said Loka Ashwood, a professor at the University of Kentucky who studies agricultural policy and rural trends.
In dozens of counties in Missouri, for example, InvestigateTV found no matches when comparing federal and county records. None of the farms registered with the federal government as foreign-owned appeared in county-level records with foreign addresses.
There were apparent omissions and discrepancies in the federal level data as well, with publicly-reported foreign-owned or controlled property not showing up or appearing under different names.
“There’s no doubt in my mind, it’s incomplete,” Ashwood said.
State and federal lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have pushed for changes – from locking down the sale of agricultural land to foreign entities to forcing increased transparency and mandating more accurate record-keeping.
“They exploit the labor that we have here, exploit the communities that we have here as best they can to ensure that they have profits and security in another place in the world… There’s something wrong with this,” said Wes Shoemyer, a lifelong Missouri farmer who would like to see reform in transparency and corporate farming.
In recent decades, no federal legislation to drastically change the tracking or sale of farmland has passed.
But many say it needs to.
A 1978 law was supposed to ensure that foreign-owned farmland is tracked through the USDA, but the data collection associated with that law appears to be incomplete.
The Agriculture Foreign Investment Disclosure Act “requires that a foreign person who acquires, disposes of, or holds an interest in United States agricultural land must disclose such transactions and holdings to the Secretary of Agriculture.”
Through a form, companies or individuals are supposed to report things such as the geographic location of the land, type of owner (such as corporation or individual), total acreage, and the value of the land.
Using that data collection mandated under AFIDA, InvestigateTV compared the reported foreign-owned agricultural land with USDA’s log of all farm and forest land in the United States.
Between 2009 and 2019, the AFIDA data shows 48 states had increased foreign-ownership.
In total, InvestigateTV’s analysis found an increase of more than 13 million acres of foreign-owned land in the United States over those ten years.
Maine, Oklahoma, Michigan, New York and Illinois saw some of the largest percentages of land shifting to overseas ownership and interest.
But that AFIDA data, according to experts and analysis, is likely giving an incomplete picture.
InvestigateTV attempted to match the federal government’s data with county assessor records and found discrepancies.
A few examples:
● GH America Energy, LLC, a company owned by billionaire and former Chinese military officer Sun Guangxin, planned to develop a wind farm on Texas land it owns through its subsidiary Brazos Highland Properties LP, according to 2020 Foreign Policy and 2021 Forbes reporting. Members of Congress specifically expressed concern about the proposed development in Val Verde County. AFIDA data lists Brazos Highland Properties LP owning land in Borden and Scurry counties in Texas, but not in Val Verde County. The Val Verde County Assessor’s Office lists property owned by Harvest Texas, LLC using a Houston address shared by GH America Energy on filings with the Texas secretary of state. That land does not appear in AFIDA data obtained by InvestigateTV.
● The Escalante Ranch in Uintah County, Utah started receiving hate mail after Chinese investor Green Pasture International LLC bought the ranch in 2011, according to an October 2021 report by Deseret News. Uintah County assessor records confirm Green Pasture’s ownership since 2011. But in AFIDA data, no Chinese company is listed as owning land in Uintah County between 2011 and 2019.
● Acciona Energy USA Global LLC, a Spanish renewable energy company, lists 10 solar and wind farm developments it owns on its website. AFIDA data shows three totally different properties owned by Acciona in Adams County, Illinois, and Calhoun and Taylor counties, Texas. Online county assessor records show property owned or leased by Acciona in Cameron County, Texas, Cedar County, Iowa, and Clark County, Nevada. None of those are recorded in AFIDA data.
InvestigateTV reached out to these companies but did not receive a response.