Monday, August 1, 2022

How much of US agriculture is owned by foreigners?

Last week, I presented some data on the very different sizes of vineyards throughout the Europe Union (the so-called Old World of the wine industry) compared to bits of the New World (The biggest difference of European vineyards from those elsewhere). This week, I will reverse things, by looking at how land ownership in the USA might be influenced by the rest of the world.

The wine industry is always interested in who is buying whom (eg. Who is buying Napa wineries?), not least because of potential changes (Why it really does matter when family-owned Napa wineries sell to corporations). In the modern world, everywhere often owns a bit of everywhere else; although, just at the moment, some people are trying to reduce Russian ownership of anywhere except Russia (Business retreats and sanctions are crippling the Russian economy), and Australian's are having trouble with China (China’s 3rd largest wine producer offloads over 300 ha Australian vineyards).

Nevertheless, it is an interesting question to ask: how much of United States agricultural land is registered as being owned by non-Americans? The short answer is (as discussed below): not much of Rhode Island, but quite a lot of Maine.

The data that I am presenting here come from this report: Foreign Holdings of U.S. Agricultural Land (Through December 31, 2020), as produced by the Farm Service Agency, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Obviously, the data includes only land ownership that has been formally registered. * The report concludes:
"Foreign persons held an interest in nearly 37.6 million acres of U.S. agricultural land as of December 31, 2020. This is 2.9 percent of all privately held agricultural land and 1.7 percent of all land in the United States ... These and other findings are based on information submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in compliance with the Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act of 1978. Forest land accounted for 46 percent of all reported foreign-held acreage, cropland for 29 percent, pasture and other agricultural land for 23 percent, and non-agricultural land for 2 percent."
In order for you to get a clear picture, that amount of land is roughly equivalent to the size of each of the 30 smallest states — Georgia, for example, is 37.1 million acres, and Washington is 42.6 million acres. So, let’s look at how this ownership is distributed among the various states around the country. The first graph shows the relationship between the total agricultural land (privately owned) and the amount of it that is registered as foreign-owned. Each point represents one of the 50 US states, only three of which are labeled.

Foreign ownership of land by state

As expected, there is a close relationship, in the sense that the more agricultural land there is in a state then the more of it can be owned by foreigners. However, clearly both Hawaii and Maine have more foreign-owned land than expected (based solely on their size), while Rhode Island has less than expected. We can check this by looking at the actual percentages of foreign-owned land for each state, as shown in the next table (click to enlarge). The bar across the table represents the national average of 2.9% (ie. the 18 states above the line have more foreign ownership than this average).

State percentages of ownership

Clearly, Maine is way out in front, with more than twice that of Hawaii. Why are foreigners so interested in Maine? Surely a condo in Hawaii would be a better investment that a farm in Maine? Anyway, to put this into geographical perspective, the next figure is a map from the original report, color-coded with a rough indication of foreign ownership. The south and the west are obviously the parts preferred by foreigners, which is perhaps not unexpected in terms of agricultural production as an investment.

Map of state percentages

Finally, we could have a look at which types of land are most desired, and how this has changed over the past decade, as shown in next graph (also from the original report). Clearly, it is forest land that has long been most preferred, and increasingly cropland, these days. The area of pasture has been relatively stable through time.

Trends in foreign ownership

This brings us to the obvious question as to which groups of foreigners own this land. This is shown in the next table. Clearly, it is Canadian investors who own the largest amount of reported foreign-held land, with more than one-third of the total. This may not surprise you, given that forestry is the main industry involved. The presence of the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and the Cayman Islands are not unexpected, either, as these are well known locations for harboring holding companies, on behalf of those people who wish to keep a low profile — who actually owns those companies could be determined only by asking the respective governments (who will not tell you). The Chinese are also known for their modern interest in foreign ownership, particularly of resources that are valued for sales within China itself. On the other hand, Italy, Germany, Portugal, the United Kingdom, New Zealand (but not Australia!), and France also seem to have a particular interest in US land ownership.

Countries of ownership

Foreign ownership of agricultural land is a thorny issue. North America was originally “owned” by the indigenous people. Then it was taken by the British and the Spanish, and also the French, without compensation. Some of the descendants of these colonials then threw the foreign “owners” out, claiming national independence, and thus land ownership. After that, these descendants have been free to sell the land to whomever they choose. And they have been doing so, but not equally throughout the country — foreign ownership of vineyards, for example, often occurs in California (eg. A French conglomerate has purchased a prized coastal vineyard. Here’s why it may be a good thing).

Farming is a seriously declining profession, especially in the west of the USA (see The extinction of the American farmer). There are many modern trends all leading in the same direction of increasing challenges, for people who work on the land. Obviously, the sensible  thing for every farmer in the modern world to do, in the face of global climate change, would be to buy agricultural land in places that are not suffering from fires, heat-waves, droughts, hail or floods. But where are such places?

* Described as follows: "The Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act of 1978 (AFIDA) requires all foreign persons holding agricultural land as of February 1, 1979, to file a report of such holdings with the Secretary of Agriculture by August 1, 1979. The information required to be reported consists of the legal name and address of the foreign person; citizenship, if an individual; if not an individual or a government, nature of the legal entity, including the entity's country of creation and principal place of business; type of interest; legal description; acreage; land use; purchase price or any other consideration given; intended use; where applicable, information about the representative of the foreign person; how the interest in the land was transferred; the relationship of the owner to the operator; type of rental agreement, if any; and the date the interest in the land was transferred."

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