CQ Roll Call

USDA aide says tracking foreign land buyers requires funding

By Ellyn Ferguson, CQ

The Agriculture Department will need funding and up-to-date technology if lawmakers want the agency to track farmland purchases by foreign buyers, especially those with ties to the People’s Republic of China, a department official testified Thursday.

Concerns about unfriendly nations gaining control of U.S. agricultural and food production crept into a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing held to identify gaps in commodity, crop insurance and credit programs in the 2018 farm bill (PL 115-334). The law expires Sept. 30.

Farm Service Administrator Zach Ducheneaux said his agency currently compiles reports based on paper documents submitted by foreign buyers required to self-report if they meet certain conditions.

House and Senate members have filed bills (S 168, S 68) or plan to do so this Congress that would direct the USDA to be more rigorous in tracking foreign buyers, to block purchases, or deny the buyers access to farm program subsidies or financing.

Rural and farm-state lawmakers say they have heightened concerns about national security after the Biden administration last week shot down what the military says was a surveillance balloon operated by Beijing. The balloon incident comes after national security concerns were raised about a Chinese corn milling company’s land purchase near a military installation in Grand Forks, N.D. 
The most recent report by the Farm Service Agency found foreign persons held an interest in approximately 40 million acres of U.S. agricultural land as of Dec. 31, 2021. The agency said that represents 3.1 percent of all privately held agricultural land and 1.8 percent of all land in the United States. Canadian investors account for the largest share of foreign-held land, including farmland, with 12.8 million acres. Buyers from China held 383,395 acres, or less than 1 percent.

Ducheneaux said lawmakers will have to invest money and give the Farm Service Agency more authority if they want it to take on more responsibilities. 
“We’re not a regulatory agency so we don’t have a lot of enforcement tools against foreign owners for not coming in and doing the paperwork. We’re going to need resources if that is the job we’re going to be tasked with,” he said. “If we can get the resources to do that properly and cooperation across the federal family, we’re ready to do that.”

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said she is working with Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and ranking member John Boozman, R-Ark., on legislation that would update the 1978 law that established the reporting requirements.

“I think this is something that really needs to be worked on. Food security is national security,” Ernst said. 
Stabenow said relying on a paper-driven system in an electronic age raises concerns.

“I want to underscore that when we’re talking about paper we ought to be looking at the very best technology and the staffing to serve our farmers. That’s a very serious issue,” Stabenow said.

In other discussions during the hearing, members said the next farm bill must expand crop insurance offerings to cover more specialty crops and tweak disaster assistance programs to close gaps they say leave producers financially vulnerable. 
Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., said program rules seem to be written to address conditions in Eastern states where water is more plentiful and not for more arid Western states where drought can delay or prevent planting far longer than in the East.

“It’s not equitable,” Lujan said.

Lujan said he would work to have the voices and experiences of Westerners included in the updating of programs.

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., said catfish farmers in her state are taking hits to their profits because of massive flocks of migrating cormorants that can each eat several pounds of fish a day and decimate the stock.

“The catfish producers suffer substantial economic losses to the bird deprivation annually,” Hyde-Smith said. The losses, the costs of dealing with diseases the birds introduce to the fish, and the expense of trying to scare the birds away from the catfish ponds affect producers’ bottom line, she said.

Hyde-Smith said farmers find it difficult to get the permits they need from the Fish and Wildlife Service to kill the birds. 
Hyde-Smith argued the situation facing catfish producers in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi should qualify for a natural disaster program and that she would work to amend the emergency assistance for livestock, honeybees and farm-raised fish in the 2023 farm bill to cover such ongoing costs.  
Hyde-Smith said the issue may have been overlooked because “it’s a Southern thing,” but Stabenow said cormorants had forced changes at a brown trout festival in Michigan because so many fish were killed. 
Ducheneaux said his agency would provide technical assistance and Boozman called for a meeting with the Farm Service Agency and the Fish and Wildlife Service to discuss the issue.