Minnesota farmers call foreign investment, billionaire land purchases ‘difficult situation’

Minnesota farmers call foreign investment, billionaire land purchases ‘difficult situation’

James Rainwater may not be a household name in Minnesota politics.

But on Tuesday morning at a forum discussion for congressional candidates in southern Minnesota, the attorney caught the attention of farmers in the outdoor shed at Redwood County’s Farmfest.

“I hear stories of Bill Gates buying up hundreds of thousands of acres for company farms,” ​​said Rainwater of Lake City. “I think the little guy needs some help.”

It’s been a summer of uneasiness in the agrarian country, with a spate of national reports about Chinese investors and green billionaires buying up US farmland and gaining control of agribusinesses.

In both cases, the nation has been looking to North Dakota.

Earlier this year, a riot erupted in Grand Forks after a Chinese-backed investment firm bought 300 acres of land from an air force base in 20 minutes. The eventual flour mill the group hopes to develop – pending approval – has subjected national security concerns to intense scrutiny.

Also this summer, in an independent action, The North Dakota Attorney General approved the sale of land in Pembina and Walsh counties to Red River Trust, a Washington-based company with ties to tech billionaire Gates.

In Minnesota, only 1.6% of the state’s farmland is owned by foreign companies. according to the latest report from the US Department of Agriculture. The state’s laws against foreign and corporate farm ownership keep the state relatively safe from troublesome buyers. Only citizens, permanent residents, or corporations with less than 20% foreign investment can own farmland in Minnesota.

“The vast majority — 70 to 80 percent — of the farmland is sold to neighboring farmers,” said Glen Fladeboe of Fladeboe Land, a brokerage firm specializing in the sale of Minnesota farmland.

Doug Spanier, an attorney for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said that apart from exceptions for wood and wind energy uses on farmland, state laws ensure that farmland is primarily controlled by farmers or their landlords.

“The states of the Midwest all have some kind of law that prevents corporate farming,” Spanier said. “And no foreign citizen may own farmland unless lawfully admitted to permanent residence in the United States.”

Still, both North Dakota cases could potentially happen in Minnesota. It does not violate state law for a foreign investor to own a mill. And Gates’ Red River Trust has announced plans to lease back the land it bought to farmers, which could allay concerns about community farming, as North Dakota AG says it has done.

Officials at Campbell Farms, the Grafton, ND potato farm that was sold to Red River Trust, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. And Gates isn’t believed to own any more land in Minnesota, though he already owns properties in neighboring Wisconsin and Iowa.

But growing public concern is worrying some farmers.

At the annual agribusiness gathering in southwest Minnesota last week, among farmers leaning against new combines or lining up for pork chops, chatter revolved around historic inflation, which has pushed up the cost of fertilizers and diesel fuel.

But right after the complaints about the cost of refueling the tractor or sourcing nitrogen came the whispers about who’s buying up America’s farmland.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of out-of-state or out-of-nation land purchases in our area,” said Dustin Johnson, a Dawson farmer who inspected heavy equipment on Tuesday. “But it’s still larger investors who buy land and compete with farmers in the process.”

“I’m a little concerned about that [Chinese land buyers]’ said Adam Lund, who also runs farms near Dawson. “But on the other side, [China is] a big importer of soybeans and some corn and a lot of different agricultural products so it’s a tricky situation.

Over the past decade, China’s Belt and Road initiative to invest in global infrastructure has made its way onto US farmland, with Chinese buyers owning nearly 200,000 acres by 2020. And concerns about foreign or plutocratic ownership of US farmland come at a time of increasing concentration — and even suspicion — in the agricultural supply line.

Last month, US Rep. Dusty Johnson, a Republican from South Dakota, called Gates Appearing before the House Agriculture Committee to tell the country what Gates intends to do with his 270,000 acres of land, citing previous statements by the billionaire calling on developed nations to give up animal protein. In late July, GOP US Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota and a Washington state congressman wrote a letter to the USDA describing foreign ownership of farmland as an “insidious threat” to America’s ability to feed the country .

And in Grand Forks, the dispute over the grist mill — touted by city officials as an economic opportunity for farmers — has divided the community, with the debate sometimes laced with anti-Asian bias.

In Minnesota, the state enacted the Alien Farm and Corporate Farm Acts in the 1970s, although Spaniards insist that there was some prohibition on the former even before statehood. A dispute over foreign farm equipment ownership last flared up in the early 2000s, when Dutch dairy farmers demanded a leniency from state law to stay on their farms. Under a recent exemption, an E-2 visa holder can be a dairy farmer — and only a dairy farmer — on no more than 1,500 acres.

While both direct corporate and foreign ownership are prohibited, there is wiggle room. For example, with its recent acquisition of a leading poultry integrator, Minnetonka-based Cargill is inheriting contracts with farmers who sell birds and seeds to breeders. And in northern Itasca County, a whopping 150,000 acres are owned by foreign-headquartered logging companies.

That The recent campaign by the country’s wealthiest residents to buy land privately often, though not always, has ecological undertones. In Montana, a foundation has purchased nearly half a million acres of land that it is turning into a wildlife sanctuary. In South Dakota and Nebraska, media mogul Ted Turner owns ranch land that is home to bison and prairie dogs. And that’s what the Land Report announced last year Gates is now the nation’s largest farmland owner.

The image of those who grew up in Seattle Tech billionaire on a tractor drew giggles from two farmers watching Tuesday’s convention forums. But a trend that evokes associations with England’s landed gentry of yesteryear isn’t right in the heartland.

“The who of everything is very important,” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said Tuesday at the sidelines of Farmfest. “But I’m more worried about buying up farmland naked and concentrating on too few hands.”

On Tuesday, Ellison and Minnesota Farmers Union President Gary Wertish unveiled a “trust-buster” UTV (Utility Task Vehicle) emblazoned with a boxing glove on the door. The pugilists’ call for better prices for farmers resonates with small-scale producers who feel the farming system has become too unwieldy, corporate, and international to control from their front porch.

But building an agricultural economy with only American producers and customers is an idea that predates the antique International Harvester tractor sitting in the ditch. US-based agribusinesses charter ships in the Black Sea and ship grain around the world. Meanwhile, two of the country’s largest meat producers — Smithfield and JBS — are owned by Chinese and Brazilian investors, respectively.

In other words, the American farm has long gone global.

Wertish acknowledged that consolidation was inevitable but said he was still concerned after hearing reports of farmland being sold to outside companies, be it Gates or foreign investors.

“It’s about losing control,” Wertish said, comparing the loss of the local farm to convenience stores being squeezed out by big department stores. “Because once you lose control, the profits from this country don’t stay in the local community.”

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