Woody Guthrie’s classic folk song “This Land Is Your Land” is generally thought of as a happy little tune that captures the richness and vastness of good ol’ USA. But the version that first played in 1944 on Guthrie’s radio show was missing a verse that protested against greedy capitalists and their general disdain for everybody else:
“As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said ‘No Trespassing.’
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.”
Paints quite a different picture doesn’t it? And it is applicable today. Because as it turns this land ain’t made just for you and me fellow American citizens. Tens of millions – maybe even north of 100 million acres – are being bought lock, stock and barrel by foreign investors. That in itself may be of little consequence. Or it may be something.
In other words, who knows?
That’s because the 1978 Agriculture Foreign Investment Disclosure Act has been a total failure.
- Foreign persons who acquire, transfer, or hold interests in agricultural land to report the transactions and holdings to the Secretary of Agriculture.
- USDA’s Farm Service Agency to maintain for public inspection all reporting forms and related correspondence.
- Penalties to be assessed against foreign persons who fail to accurately and timely report.
When purchasing U.S. land, foreign persons are required to provide basic information including their name, address, citizenship, the type of interest acquired or transferred, legal description of the land, and the acreage to the feds, who in turn publish a report letting everyone know what’s what. The law doesn’t lay out a publication schedule, but the Farm Service Agency has been releasing them yearly. The latest from 2021 shows “(f)oreign-held U.S. agricultural acres as of December 31, 2020 were nearly 37.6 million, resulting in an increase of approximately 2.4 million acres.”
There’s widespread agreement among folks who keep track of the numbers that it is significantly under-counted. Records are inaccurate or incomplete. Likely, many foreign persons are thumbing their nose at AFIDA.
Congress is doing something about it.
Last December, tucked in the $1.7 trillion dollar Consolidated Appropriations Act spending bill is a provision that amends AFIDA. Congress hopes the changes will increase federal government oversight on foreign ownership by directing USDA to report to Congress “foreign investments in agricultural land in the United States, including the impact foreign ownership has on family farms, rural communities, and the domestic food supply.” In other words, provide some context to foreign land ownership.
There are a few other provisions as well:
- USDA is directed to establish a new foreign person electronic disclosure system no later than Dec. 29, 2025, to make it easier to report acquisitions. Currently foreign purchasers of U.S. land are generally required to submit a FSA-153 form to the Farm Service Agency office in the county the land is located. Convenient? Not!
- USDA must establish “an internet database that contains disaggregated data from each disclosure submitted.” And the database is supposed to go back to Day 1 of AFIDA, broken down between foreign individuals and foreign persons that are not individuals or a government. Think foreign business entities including those of Big Ag.
- All this sounds dandy. But there’s a couple of flies in the ointment. For one, USDA will be required to protect “personally identifiable information.” The Consolidated Appropriations Act doesn’t define what that means, which could lead to lack of transparency to the public.
The bigger problem is the new provisions assume foreign persons are not reporting because it’s inconvenient. There are pretty hefty fines for ignoring AFIDA; the penalty may equal 25% of the fair market value of the land, for agricultural purposes, held by the foreign person. That’s not just potatoes.
Up to now, the federal government hasn’t done much to clean up all those inaccurate and incomplete records. Foreign law breakers are getting off the hook. Whether the new AFIDA provision lights a fire under USDA to go after foreign scofflaws is anyone’s guess. I have my doubts.
It’s entirely possible that the new AFIDA provisions won’t go far enough to provide the clarity Congress and the public needs.
About Dave Dickey
Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Investigate Midwest covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect Investigate Midwest. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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