Is China really buying up US farmland? Here’s what we found

Farmland in southern North Dakota near Bismarck on September 2, 2016.

Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images

state and federal legislatures They are pushing to regulate foreign ownership of US real estate amid fears that Chinese companies are posing a national security risk by amassing large swathes of US farmland, some near sensitive locations.

However, an NBC News review of thousands of documents filed with the US Department of Agriculture shows that Chinese buyers have made very few purchases over the past year and a half — fewer than 1,400 acres in a country with 1.3 billion acres of farmland. In fact, the total amount of US farmland owned by Chinese interests is less than three hundredths of 1%.

However, the review also reveals a federal oversight system in which reporting of foreign ownership is lax and enforcement is minimal.

Any foreign person or entity who buys or leases agricultural land in the United States is eligible required by federal law to report the transaction to the USDA within 90 days, but some have gone unreported for years—in one case, more than 20 years. And during the same period, no one has been fined more than $121,000 for failing to file such a report.

As of January 1, 2022, NBC News has been able to review filings regarding foreign purchases and leases of agricultural land, including both agricultural and forest land, from 35 states. The vast majority of deals involved European wind power companies building land leased from US farmers. An Italian wind company announced 40 new leases farmland in just one rural county in Illinois. The same company had leases in at least four other states.

In those 35 states, NBC News found 11 purchases by Chinese companies reported to the USDA from January 1, 2022 to June 30, 2023.

Several of the disclosures were not recent sales and at least one was a repeat of a previous disclosure. Another case was not reported to the government until it was exposed in the media.

Smithfield Foods reported that it bought 186 acres in Missouri and North Carolina in 2022 and 2023, adding to its existing U.S. portfolio of less than 128,000 acres, a company spokesman said. Smithfield Foods was formerly a US company and was bought by a Chinese company in 2013.

“There are important issues that need to be resolved between the US and China,” said Jim Monroe, Smithfield’s vice president of corporate affairs. “Owning US farmland is not one of them.”

The Syngenta Group filed six disclosures totaling 772 acres in Iowa, Florida and California, but the purchases had already been reported to the USDA when they were made under the company’s previous owner, a Swiss company. Syngenta was bought by a Chinese company in 2017.

Saswato Das, a spokesman for Syngenta, told NBC News that the company owns or leases a total of 6,000 acres in the US

Das said Syngenta uses a “substantial portion” of its US land for research on its products as required by the USDA or the Environmental Protection Agency. Authorities require the company to test the seeds and chemicals it intends to sell. “All of these activities are being conducted in fields and farms across the United States to help American farmers,” Das said.

A Hong Kong company that bought 365 acres in North Dakota did not disclose its purchases to the USDA until CNBC announced that national security concerns had been raised about the land’s proximity to Grand Forks Air Force Base.

After CNBC wrote that Fufeng USA’s purchases caused alarm in Washington, a local USDA official contacted the company and inquired about foreign ownership disclosure, according to USDA filings reviewed by NBC News.

Two weeks later, the company complied with that request, filing disclosures showing it had made three purchases totaling $9.5 million to build a “biofermentation plant for wet corn milling.”

Eric Chutorash, Fufeng USA’s chief operating officer, dismissed concerns that the facility could be used to spy on the airbase.

“I can’t imagine anyone we hire would even do that,” Chutorash said. When asked if he could definitely say it wouldn’t be used for espionage purposes, he replied, “Absolutely.”

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However, due to opposition from local, state and federal officials, development of the Fufeng plant was halted. According to the county clerk, Fufeng still owns more than 300 acres of land in Grand Forks, which is less than a quarter the size of an average North Dakota family farm.

Weak Enforcement

Historically, only about 3.1%, or 40 million acres, of the country’s 1.3 billion acres of agricultural land has been owned by foreigners. Almost half of foreign-owned land is forest. USDA records show that one-third of the 40 million hectares in foreign ownership are owned by Canadian interests, while Chinese interests own less than 400,000 hectares.

However, according to the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, the proportion of agricultural land owned by foreign interests is increasing, and the rate at which foreign ownership is growing has also increased. While it grew an average of 800,000 acres per year from 2011 to 2015, it increased by 2.2 million acres per year from 2015 to 2021.

In the name of national security, congressmen have called for stricter laws regulating foreign land purchases and have criticized the USDA’s existing police disclosure efforts.

According to the USDA, only six companies have faced penalties for late or non-filing in the past decade.

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Two Canadian companies were fined for late filing in 2013. A Swedish company was fined a year later. After that there were no penalties until 2019 when a Japanese company was fined.

In 2021, two Chinese companies were jointly fined more than $135,000 for failing to disclose their purchases of more than 130,000 acres along the southern US border in Texas more than 20 years ago.

The penal letter Information sent by the USDA to one of the companies, Brazos Highland Properties LP, shows that the company filed its disclosure 8,017 days late. The government said in its letter that the original amount of the proposed fine was $21 million due to the long delay, but the agency decided to lower it to $120,216.38. This greatly reduced amount was the largest fine the agency had imposed in 20 years.

According to USDA documents, both companies, Harvest Texas and Brazos Highland, paid their reduced fines three months later. They also abandoned plans for a wind farm in the country after there was significant local opposition.

Congressmen, who want to tighten scrutiny of foreign holdings, say the true scope is difficult to gauge in the absence of enforcement.

In late July, the Senate passed a ban on China, Russia, North Korea and Iran buying American agricultural land. However, it is unclear whether the change will be included in the final defense spending bill, which will be voted on in Congress in the fall.

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One of the amendment’s proponents, Senator Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, has also suggested giving the Food and Drug Administration and Secretary of Agriculture oversight of foreign purchases to ensure reporting is timely and accurate, as well as the inclusion of the USDA staff to oversee purchases. She also suggests that any purchase or lease by a foreign company that has more than 320 acres or more than $5 million worth of land should be subject to review.

In a statement, Ernst said, “Any hectare of land that the Chinese Communist Party can use against the United States is a threat that must be taken seriously. We have already seen the danger their malign influence poses in our backyard when they bought critical land near our military installations. We need to strengthen the law as the USDA is currently not fully able to enforce or monitor foreign investments.

“That’s why I’m working with Democrats on the other side to protect the security of our agriculture, which would require CFIUS.” [Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States] to fulfill its mission of modernizing the USDA’s process of protecting our country from our adversaries and ensuring that China cannot use any loopholes against us.”

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