For some reason, foreign ownership of farmland in the US has become a hot topic. I am not sure what is behind the current attention, but I know it is not the first time the issue has come up. It may have a relationship to peaks in farm asset values, as I recall talking about this in an ag econ class in the late 70s at Iowa State. Anyway, the Senate Ag Committee recently held a hearing on foreign farmland ownership and committee staff prepared this interesting map. h/t to John Newton for sharing the map on twitter (I refuse to say X. Sorry Elon).
Before talking about the data it is important to understand that a very broad definition of “farmland” is used here. It includes cropland, pastureland, and timber. This helps make sense of the patterns shown in the chart. It shows that only 3.1% of “farmland” is foreign-owned in the US. It’s not nothing but it’s not very much either. Notice that what “farmland” is foreign-owned is concentrated in the west and south. This likely corresponds to timber and pasture/ranch land. The Corn Belt has very negligible foreign ownership of cropland.
Of course, what also matters is the trend in foreign ownership of “farmland.” Has it been rising rapidly of late? I did some digging and discovered the source of the data. I had no idea the USDA had been collecting this data for so long under The Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act (AFIDA) of 1978. I am sure this is connected to my discussions of the issue in an ag econ class at Iowa State during that time. Anyway, annual reports based on the AFIDA data can be found here: Annual Reports (usda.gov). I checked the 2000 annual report for a baseline and it reported that 1% of farmland was foreign-owned in 2000. So, foreign ownership of US farmland has increased from 1 to 3% in the last 23 years. Not much of a trend.
The 2021 AFIDA annual report has an interesting breakdown by type of farmland over 2011-2021. It shows that cropland increased from about 6 million acres in 2018 to 12 million acres in 2021. Maybe this trend is behind the recent interest in the topic. Regardless, 12 million acres is a drop in the bucket compared to principal cropland acreage in the US, which was 317 million acres in 2021. The 12 million acres is 3.8% of principal crop acreage for perspective.
We can safely say that there is no danger at the present time of vast swaths of prime US farmland becoming foreign-owned. There has been an uptick in foreign ownership of cropland in the last decade. It will be interesting to track whether this persists if we go through a downcycle of crop prices and farmland returns.
Laurence J. Norton Chair of Agricultural Marketing
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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