Missouri legislators are currently debating how to limit and track the amount of foreign-owned farmland in the state.
Members of the Missouri House Agriculture Committee on Tuesday considered a bill that will require county assessors to track foreign farmland holdings.
It will also cap foreign ownership of farmland at the county level to no more than 1% of the total agricultural acreage in each county.
Farmland currently owned by foreign entities will not be affected by this change.
State Representative, Don Rone, R-New Madrid, chairman of the committee and sponsor of the bill, said he is advocating for grain farmers in the Bootheel who anticipate anti-competitive market conditions due to a pending foreign acquisition of 17 grain elevators along the Mississippi River.
How federal authorities monitor acquisitions that affect multiple states is outside of the control of state legislators, said Rone. “But we have a say in the state of Missouri, and that’s the reason I put this forward”, said Rone. “We can control our own destiny of who buys and sells in our state.”
While he has the support of the Missouri Farm Bureau, Rone has received pushback from lobbyists representing Smithfield Foods and the Missouri Pork Association.
Jewell Patek, a lobbyist for China-based Smithfield Foods, notes in his testimony that limits on foreign ownership will disincentivize corporate agribusiness from investing in the state.
Patek said that without Smithfield’s investments in Mercer, Putnam and Sullivan counties, for example, “you can’t have the banks, you can’t have the telephone company, you can’t have the co-ops.”
But some research from local food systems advocates shows that the growing consolidation of the food system, bolstered in part by large companies like Smithfield expanding their operations in rural areas of the United States, is linked to poor working conditions, degraded farmland, strained local infrastructure and increasing land prices farmers can no longer afford.
Foreign land ownership of farmland was banned in Missouri in 1978, at a time when foreign entities were beginning to gain more leverage in the U.S. food system, the Missourian has reported.
That ban was lifted in 2013 when Missouri lawmakers slipped language into an omnibus bill that would open up 1%of the state’s farmland to foreign entities.
Two weeks later, Smithfield, then a Virginia-based company, was bought by Shuanghui, a Chinese company now known as WH Group, which received a $4 billion loan from the Chinese government to complete this purchase.
Then-Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the bill, but the legislature overrode it, which allowed Shuanghui to acquire more than 40,000 acres of Missouri hog farms.
Under Rone’s bill, existing foreign-owned agriculture land would be grandfathered in, with counties eligible to increase their total percentage by 1%.
Brian Smith, an organizer with the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, also opposes the bill, but for reasons very different from Patek. From Smith’s perspective, the bill doesn’t go far enough in limiting foreign ownership of US farmland.
“Factory farm agriculture, when you look at it as a whole, is an extractive industry,” said Smith. “Yes, Smithfield does provide some jobs, but who’s to say? If we had a more diversified, sustainable food system, we’d have more farmers.”
Smith is referring to the loss of more than 80%of Missouri’s pork farmers since the 1980s. He also takes issue with the bill’s lack of penalties for entities that do not accurately report the acquisition of US farmland by foreign companies. As it currently exists, the tracking system relies heavily on entities to self-report such acquisitions.
“That’s a big problem because a law with no penalty is just words on a page,” said Smith. “There’s no accountability.”
In addition to no penalty, the bill would shift oversight to the county level, relying on county assessors to track sales and acquisitions.
Andy Arnold offered informational testimony on behalf of the Missouri Title Underwriters Insurance Group and the Missouri State Assessors Association. He said the bill would place a “major burden” on underfunded state assessor offices to create and enforce a tracking system of their own.
Rone said the bill discussed today will be heavily revised due to the feedback he’s received from fellow lawmakers, lobbyists and the public.
“We’ve got to figure out how to not stagnate ag business, but yet protect our food chain in the state of Missouri”, said Rone.