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Bills seek to reduce foreign ownership of Missouri farmland

by Samir Knox, [email protected] | January 25, 2023 at 4:02 a.m.

Witnesses disagreed about whether "alien or foreign businesses" should be allowed to buy or transfer real estate and agricultural land in Missouri at a hearing Tuesday morning.

The Senate Agriculture, Food Production and Outdoor Resources Committee heard testimony about three bills regarding the foreign ownership of real estate and agricultural land in Missouri.

The first bill, Senate Bill 9 sponsored by Sen. Bill Eigel, R-St. Charles, would require all transfers of agricultural land by "alien or foreign businesses" to be submitted to the Missouri Department of Agriculture (MDA) for review.

Ben Travlos, director of state and local legislative affairs for the Missouri Farm Bureau, testified in favor of all three bills presented. Sam Licklider, chief lobbyist with Missouri Realtors, objected to the bills.

"Missouri Realtors has a very simple policy, and I thought most of you would agree with us. We don't think it's the place of government to get involved with private business transactions. This bill, as is presented, is the most draconian of them all," Licklider said about SB 9.

Phillip Arnzen, director of legislative affairs for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, also opposed all three bills presented.

The second bill, SB 55 sponsored by Sen. Jason Bean, R-Butler, would reduce the amount of foreign-owned agricultural land in the state from 1 percent to 0.5 percent.

"Senate Bill 55 aims to set the record straight by making food security and national security a priority interest," Bean said.

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft testified in favor of the bill, stating he had been working closely with Bean to ensure it was successful in protecting Missouri's security and protecting agricultural interests.

"This bill would just bring down that 1 percent under what is classified under the Missouri law," he said. "The reason why we wanted to go down to ... half a percent, is we wanted to make a difference. But we also wanted to make sure that we didn't do something that we regret two years later."

While Bean said the bill sought to deter foreign encroachment on Missouri land and the potential for foreign threats on military bases in the state, he said he didn't want to go as far as to deter foreign investment in the state that would benefit American farmers.

MDA and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have different figures for the amount of foreign-owned land in Missouri.

The USDA estimates 1.1 percent of Missouri agricultural land is foreign owned. MDA data indicates only 0.16 percent of land sold in 2021 was foreign-owned, and that the state total is 0.36 percent.

Ashcroft attributed the discrepancy to different counting methods across agencies, and that the UDSA accounted for other types of land, like forestry.

The two largest foreign owners of land in Missouri are China and New Zealand, with 42,596 acres and 16,271 acres of land, respectively.

"Based on our model, what they (MDA) would count for farmland ownership is different than what USDA does. So that's why there are the two different numbers which can be confusing at times," Ashcroft said.

Bean mentioned five nations that would be barred from owning any land in the state without exception: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and Venezuela.

"The approach is to move us in the right direction," Ashcroft said. "But also be cognizant about potential unforeseen consequences and to make sure that we do it in a measured manner."

Bean stated language in the bill prohibiting foreign ownership of land within 30 miles of military installations would be amended, given that it might restrict development in other industries like aerospace or pharmaceuticals.

Sen. Barbara Washington, D-Jackson County, expressed concern over this, and asked Ashcroft and Bean what protections would be in place to protect American military bases in case new or different countries needed to be added to the list.

"Who's going to monitor that change if the feds come down the line and say, 'We don't trust Britain anymore' or 'We don't trust Germany, and we don't want them around,'" Washington said. "Who is going to monitor that to make sure that our military is protected?"

"Well, we've taken the military bases out of the bill. The reason we did that was when we realized, for example, our partners here in the state like Boeing, this would affect Boeing," Bean said in an interview with the News Tribune after the hearing.

Bean did not mention if language in the bill that restricts purchasing or leasing land within 30 miles of agricultural land would be removed.

Sen. Rusty Black, R-Livingston County, had a similar bill presented before the committee, SB 76. Sen. Jill Carter, R-Jasper, asked Black to clarify the difference between both bills.

"The primary, I'll say, two primary differences are that mine takes ownership back to zero so there will be no new foreign ownership. I do not touch anything to do with military facilities or companies that help our military industry in our state," Black said.

Black also has proposed a Senate Joint Resolution, SJR 38, to amend the state constitution to prohibit any future foreign ownership of agricultural land after August. If approved, voters would be asked to determine if future foreign ownership of farm land would be prohibited.

SB 9: Modifies provisions relating to the foreign ownership of real estate

Sponsor: Sen. Bill Eigel, R-St. Charles

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