US Lawmakers Seek to Curb Chinese Farmland Purchases

The Midwestern state of Illinois is one of the top producers of corn and soybeans in the United States, and it’s where Wendell Shauman farms land that his family has owned for several generations near the city of Galesburg.

While planting crops this spring, he’s been worried about Chinese investors purchasing farmland like his.  

Between 2019 and 2020, companies with shareholders connected to China increased their overall U.S. land holdings by nearly 30%, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

“It’s uncomfortable having your major competitor — an outfit that is shaking their saber at you all the time — to own land here. That makes you nervous,” Shauman told VOA. 

But he acknowledges he doesn’t know of any farms nearby connected to China. 

“I don’t know of any in this area,” he said.

In Jacksonville, Illinois, Luke Worrell’s company manages land transactions throughout the region. 

“In 15 years, I’ve never even had communication with an investment group that I’ve known to be Chinese,” he says. 

Most of the transactions he’s involved with stay local. 

“In my 15-year career, I’ve never sold a farm to any international buyer.”

Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican, is among a bipartisan group of lawmakers calling Chinese ownership of American farms a threat.  

“If you add up all of the acres of Chinese-owned farmland, it is nearly the size of my home state of Iowa,” she told reporters during a press conference on Capitol Hill in March. “The Chinese are everywhere,” she said, “and we need to be wary of what they are doing here in the United States.”

While lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle consider legislation aimed to curb sales of U.S. agricultural land to some foreign entities, China ranks 18th out of 109 countries with investment in U.S. land.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports Chinese-connected investors own less than 162,000 total hectares (400,000 acres) of land in the U.S. — only a fraction of which is farmland. That is 1.12% of the total area of Iowa.

“China owns almost no farmland in the United States,” said Bruce Sherrick, professor of agriculture and consumer economics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Of the millions of hectares of U.S. agricultural lands owned by foreign entities, Sherrick says Chinese ownership barely registers.

Recent efforts by Chinese-connected investors to buy land near military installations in Texas and North Dakota have fueled concerns about national security risks. But Sherrick says foreign-owned properties are typically managed or tended to by local entities, often American farmers.

“The land producing things doesn’t know who owns it,” Sherrick said to VOA during a recent interview in his campus office. “So, I think as a matter of agriculture policy, it’s probably not a big deal who owns it.”

Sherrick says farmland remains an attractive investment for any potential buyer. 

“It’s positively correlated returns with inflation no matter how we parse up the data through time. A very high average returns through time, and very low systemic risk.”

In Streator, Illinois, farmer David Isermann also doesn’t know of any land near him owned by foreign investors.

“For me, it’s a nonissue,” he says. 

While he’d prefer local ownership over Chinese investment, Isermann doesn’t see a need for new legislation.

“I think the whole issue is made to make us feel good. You know, it’s something that both sides of the aisle can agree on,” he said.

Shauman has no plans to sell any of his land, which will one day become his granddaughter’s, as she helps him manage the farming business. He welcomes legislation curbing Chinese land acquisitions in the U.S.

“In rural America, I think there would be a lot of support for this,” he says. “I just as soon not have China come in and throw money around and who knows doing whatever else.  I’m not a fan of China.”

In addition to Congress, a number of state legislatures are also considering new restrictions on foreign ownership of U.S. land.

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