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Oklahoma governor says China is buying up the state's farmland. The data he cites points to other countries

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt made an appearance on Fox News last summer, saying his state is under threat from China's "Communist Party," as foreign-owned companies bought up land.
Fox News
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt made an appearance on Fox News last summer, saying his state is under threat from China's "Communist Party," as foreign-owned companies bought up land.

Key Takeaways

  • Oklahoma has seen some of the nation’s largest growth in foreign-owned land in recent years, leading to a political debate over whether new restrictions should be imposed.
  • Nationwide, foreign-owned acres have nearly tripled since 2005, now topping 40 million. Dozens of proposals have been made in Congress to limit foreign companies and individuals from buying more land.
  • While most of the growth is from energy companies, large international corporate food producers also own thousands of acres nationwide.

Saddling a horse on his family’s east Oklahoma ranch, Gov. Kevin Stitt told a Fox News reporter his state’s land was under threat from the Chinese “Communist Party.” Thousands of acres were being bought by China-based companies and individuals to build marijuana farms, if not for more nefarious purposes, the Republican governor said.

“We pulled the stats, and Oklahoma was the Number 1 (in) land purchases by the communists or foreign nationals (in 2020) than any other state, it’s like 380,000 acres,” Stitt said in the interview that aired July 29, 2022. “That's a red flag for anybody.”

Stitt was correct that Oklahoma has seen more land purchases by foreign companies or individuals than most other states. In fact, between 2015 and 2021, the amount of foreign-owned land in Oklahoma increased more than 300%, according to an Investigate Midwest analysis of federal records. Only Nebraska had a bigger jump.

Across the country, lawmakers in statehouses and in Congress have been raising the alarm over the growth in foreign-owned land, often claiming the Chinese government is behind the purchases in an effort to control food supplies or spy on critical U.S. infrastructure.

Some of the strongest rhetoric has been in Oklahoma, where the state’s rapidly growing medical marijuana industry has provided officials a political opportunity to seize on anti-Chinese sentiments that have intensified in recent years, especially among many Republican voters.

But in Oklahoma, the growth in foreign-owned land pointed to by Stitt has little to do with marijuana farms or Chinese companies, according to records from the United States Department of Agriculture.

Instead, it’s almost entirely from companies in Canada and Europe that bought or leased land to build wind and solar farms.

The only Oklahoma land owned by a Chinese company in USDA’s records is a combined 2,571 acres held by Smithfield Foods, a large pork producer that moved into the state several years ago.

After multiple emails to Stitt’s office pointing out that Chinese companies did not account for a single acre of growth in 2020, a spokesperson for the governor told Investigate Midwest he wasn’t referring to just China in his interview with Fox News and might have corrected himself midsentence.

“He says communists but quickly corrects himself and says, ‘foreign nationals,’ ” Abegail Cave, Stitt’s communications director, wrote in an email.

While the governor and other Oklahoma lawmakers have claimed a growing Chinese threat in the form of land ownership, often conflating anecdotal reports of foreign-backed marijuana farms with USDA records, it has raised new questions about Oklahoma’s longtime ban on foreign entities purchasing agricultural land and the numerous exceptions made over the years.

Dozens of other states have also recently considered new laws to stop the growth in foreign-owned land, with some efforts explicitly targeting property owners with ties to China.

In Congress, some have raised concerns about international espionage and highlighted the growing power of international agriculture corporations. Others have warned the rush to ban foreign ownership could harm immigrant farmers and ranchers.

“This has been an issue throughout our nation’s history with different political flashpoints over time,” said Micah Brown, an Arkansas-based attorney with the National Agricultural Law Center. “But the last few years has been the most recent flashpoint where this issue has come back up in a big way.”

In 2022, a Chinese company bought land in North Dakota to build a corn milling plant, which the United States Air Force raised concerns about because of its proximity to the nearby Grand Forks Air Force Base. A similar proposal in Texas also drew criticism.

Over the past year, at least 35 states have proposed some restrictions on foreign land ownership, with 12 states enacting new laws, according to the National Agricultural Law Center.

“It really stems from those transactions in North Dakota and Texas that got media attention,” Brown said.

That increased media attention brought Fox News reporters to Stitt’s ranch last year, where he said Oklahoma was taking the lead in banning foreign land ownership by “passing laws to get control of that here in our state.”

“You know that the Communist Party is monitoring everything their citizens do,” said Stitt, referring specifically to China. “We would be fools to think they are not monitoring what is happening in the U.S. and strategically planting spies.”

Poultry producer O.K. Foods, owned by the Mexican company Industrias Bachoco, operates in Oklahoma, including this facility in south Oklahoma City.
Ben Felder
Investigate Midwest
Poultry producer O.K. Foods, owned by the Mexican company Industrias Bachoco, operates in Oklahoma, including this facility in south Oklahoma City.

USDA still uses a ‘paper-based approach’ to foreign-owned land records

The Oklahoma constitution bans foreign ownership of land, but court rulings have essentially allowed for the practice, including a 1981 Oklahoma Supreme Court decision that upheld a Canadian investment firm’s right to own land as long as it’s qualified to do business in the state.

Beginning in the 1970s, state lawmakers also carved out an exception for swine and poultry producers, hoping to attract an industry with several foreign-backed corporations.

Foreign companies that buy or lease land in the United States must report that ownership to the USDA as part of the Agriculture Foreign Investments Disclosure Act of 1978. But critics say the records, often called AFIDA, are faulty because they rely on property owners to self-report, and enforcement resources are lacking.

“Currently, the AFIDA reporting system uses a paper-based approach to data collection that has changed little since the start of the program,” Gloria Montaño Greene, a deputy under secretary at USDA, wrote on Sept. 27 to the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, which held a hearing on the topic of foreign-owned land in the United States.

“Companies print out legal descriptions from their internal electronic land management systems and mail their hard copy AFIDA filings in bankers’ boxes to USDA,” she continued. “We currently have no way to electronically identify the geographic location of AFIDA filings more specifically than at the county level.”

The ownership records also do not specify the land's intended use, making it hard to determine if a company uses its land to build a factory, run a wind farm or raise cattle.

Smithfield, the Chinese-owned meat producer, owns land in three Oklahoma counties, while Kronseder Farms, Inc., a German-owned hog producer, owns more than 7,300 acres in western Oklahoma, according to AFIDA filings.

Some foreign-owned companies operating in Oklahoma are not found in the USDA’s records.

Poultry producer O.K. Foods, owned by the Mexican company Industrias Bachoco, has multiple facilities in Oklahoma, according to its company directory. But none of the locations appear in AFIDA filings. O.K. Foods did not respond to a request for comment.

The exception for swine and poultry producers, along with pro-business court rulings, appeared to spur growth in Oklahoma’s foreign-owned land, which doubled from 1980 to 2000, topping 54,000 acres, according to USDA records.

But the largest spike came from 2005 to 2010 when the number of foreign-owned acres in Oklahoma quadrupled to around 263,000.

Most of the growth was from North American and European companies — attracted to the state’s vast land and consistent wind — buying and leasing land to build wind and solar farms. Oklahomans sometimes pushed back on large wind turbines built near residential neighborhoods, but the companies' nationality was rarely a factor.

Foreign-owned land nationwide remained steady at around 15 million acres during the 1980s and 1990s, according to USDA records.

Since 2005, the number of foreign-owned acres across the country has nearly tripled, topping 40 million last year.

Most of the foreign-owned and leased and in Oklahoma is by Canadian and European energy companies that operate wind farms, like this one in Kingfisher County.
Ben Felder
Investigate Midwest
Most of the foreign-owned and leased and in Oklahoma is by Canadian and European energy companies that operate wind farms, like this one in Kingfisher County.

State lawmakers used foreign land data to push back against marijuana farms

In 2018, Oklahoma voters legalized a robust medical marijuana system with few regulations, creating a modern “gold rush” within the industry as thousands of new cannabis growers quickly bought land.

The state issued more than 8,000 grower licenses within a few years. By 2022, Oklahoma was producing 64 times more cannabis than licensed patients could legally consume, according to a study commissioned by the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority, the agency that issues licenses.

Some rural communities became frustrated with the new marijuana farms that quickly appeared, sometimes surrounded by barbed wire fencing and threats to take legal action if pesticides used on nearby farms contaminated the marijuana fields. Lawmakers passed dozens of new laws in recent years aimed at better controlling the industry, including a new system that attempts to track every plant in the state.

In 2022, the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics claimed Oklahoma was the top origin for marijuana found in many other states and that foreign-backed cartels were behind many of the operations. In April of this year, five Chinese individuals were charged in federal court with conspiring to manufacture marijuana in Oklahoma and distribute it out of state, following an investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Many of the marijuana grow operations controlled by foreign individuals are actually owned by a local resident and the state grow license — the only way to track marijuana grow operations — is registered to an Oklahoma resident or company, according to the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics. While illegal and foreign-owned marijuana farms don’t appear in USDA’s land records, officials say that doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist.

“Illegal marijuana grows are responsible for an alarming influx of organized crime into our communities, particularly from Mexican drug cartels and Chinese crime syndicates,” Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond said in September when announcing a new organized crime task force focused on illegal marijuana growers.

Oklahoma lawmakers seized on the issue by passing Senate Bill 212 earlier this year, which bans a foreign individual or entity from buying land in Oklahoma to use for marijuana production.

Like the governor, State Sen. David Bullard, a Durant Republican who co-authored the bill, conflated USDA data that showed Oklahoma’s growth in foreign-owned land with the possible growth of illegal marijuana grow facilities in the state.

Sen. David Bullard, a Republican from Durant.
Oklahoma Legislative Services Bureau
Sen. David Bullard, a Republican from Durant.

“I have been working to stop the foreign takeover of our state by means of illegally purchasing our land,” Bullard said in May as his bill advanced through the state legislature. “To date, they have consumed over 380,000 acres of land. Senate Bill 212 closes the loopholes they are using and adds an affidavit to the process to create a paper trail for law enforcement to shut it down.”

The bill initially required new landowners to sign an affidavit claiming they were not backed by a foreign individual or entity.

State Sen. Michael Brooks, an Oklahoma City Democrat, objected to the bill because he said it was “overly broad” and could harm those living in Oklahoma on work visas or brought to the country illegally as children.

“I realize they were trying to control against straw buyers who want to produce marijuana illegally,” Brooks said. “But if a foreign-owned criminal organization was coming to buy property in the state of Oklahoma, I don't know if the potential of a perjury charge for falsely signing an affidavit is a factor on whether they decide to do this.”

His objections helped reshape the bill to include more specific language that he believes targets only individuals seeking to grow marijuana.

Arkansas moves against seed business owned by a Chinese company

The push to ban Chinese landowners may be strongest in Arkansas, where Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders recently announced she was forcing a subsidiary of Syngenta Seeds, LLC, which is Chinese-owned, to sell 160 acres of land it owns in the northeast part of the state.

“This isn’t about where you’re from; we welcome Chinese Americans, Russian Americans and anyone else who’s given up foreign oppression for American freedom. This is about where your loyalties lie,” Sanders said during an Oct. 17 media conference, where she referenced a new state law that allows officials to go after Chinese-owned companies with landholdings to prevent them from sharing technology and other sensitive information with the Chinese government.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders recently announced she was forcing a subsidiary of Syngenta Seeds, LLC, which is Chinese-owned, to sell 160 acres of land it owns in the northeast part of the state.
Arkansas Governor's Office
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders recently announced she was forcing a subsidiary of Syngenta Seeds, LLC, which is Chinese-owned, to sell 160 acres of land it owns in the northeast part of the state.

Syngenta said its U.S. landholdings have been examined by the federal government and the company complies with all laws.

“Our people in Arkansas are Americans led by Americans who care deeply about serving Arkansas farmers,” Saswato Das, a company spokesman, told Reuters.

Syngenta Seeds, LLC, owns less than 5,000 acres across the country, according to federal AFIDA records.

But as is the case in Arkansas, subsidiaries of Syngenta often aren’t listed in those self-reported records.

Brown, the attorney with the National Agricultural Law Center, said the Syngenta case in Arkansas could spark similar action in other states and at the federal level.

Over the past year, at least 31 proposals have been made in Congress to limit foreign-owned land, according to the National Agricultural Law Center. Some measures focus on improving AFIDA reporting requirements, while others specifically ban ownership of American land by companies with ties to China, North Korea, Russia and Iran.

This year, Oklahoma U.S. Sen. James Lankford co-authored the Security and Oversight of International Landholdings (SOIL) Act, which would put additional scrutiny on land holdings with connections to China, especially land leases.

“Since I've introduced this bill, several of my colleagues in this room have also introduced other bills that are similar to it,” Lankford, a Republican, said from the Senate floor on March 28. “Good, that means people are paying attention to this and the conversation is starting.”

But concerns have been raised about how some of the proposed laws might discriminate against foreign-born Americans, including those who work in the agriculture sector.

“We know that there were these types of laws in the late 1800s and early 1900s ... where Chinese Americans were prevented from becoming naturalized,” said U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, a California Democrat and chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

“Now we are seeing this again,” she said, “and what was most alarming was the bill signed (this year) by Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida.”

The Florida law bans people of Chinese descent from purchasing property close to military bases, airports, water treatment plants and other “critical infrastructure.”

Chu accused politicians like DeSantis of trying to court Republican voters with tough action against China, a nation former President Donald Trump often targeted during his presidency.

Chu said she supports steps to better understand the extent of foreign-owned land in the United States and can see value in “narrowly tailored” laws that seek to prevent specific adversarial governments from owning American land.

But Chu and her caucus are speaking out against proposals that would limit land ownership by individuals just because of where they are from.

“These are what I consider to be discriminatory acts,” Chu said. “It is indeed intensifying and some politicians are seeing that they can gain even greater visibility by doing such a thing, but they are harming individual civil rights.”

Investigate Midwest is an independent, nonprofit newsroom. Our mission is to serve the public interest by exposing dangerous and costly practices of influential agricultural corporations and institutions through in-depth and data-driven investigative journalism. Visit us online at www.investigatemidwest.org

Ben Felder covers agribusiness and the meat industry in Oklahoma for Investigate Midwest.
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