The America First Policy Institute, a think tank inspired by former President Donald Trump, is working to enact U.S. state laws aimed at banning foreign ownership — especially Chinese ownership — of agricultural land.
Trump-inspired think tank offers model legislation in absence of national restrictions
Adam Savit, director of the China Policy Initiative at AFPI, told Nikkei Asia in an interview that the game plan is to share model legislation among states to ensure smooth passage of the bills.
“You can’t always get legislation through at the federal level, so you want to focus on the experimental areas of democracy. We have 50 states that we can experiment in,” Savit said. Teaming with the institute’s advocacy arm America First Works, the group targets states “where we thought there was a good ability to move bills.”
According to AFPI’s scorecard, nine states have passed legislation supported by the ideas of the institute to ban or limit such purchases: Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and Utah.
State restrictions on land purchases by foreign buyers are nothing new. Foreign ownership of U.S. land is currently restricted in about 24 states, the National Agricultural Law Center reports.
But many restrictions are circumvented by the use of U.S.-based subsidiaries and are not sufficiently enforced, AFPI says. The model legislation the group shares is more explicit in its language.
The group cites as a model a South Carolina bill stating that no entity may “own, lease, possess, or exercise any control over” more than 100 acres of real estate in the state if it is controlled by a company owned “in whole or in part,” even indirectly, “by the People’s Republic of China or the Chinese Communist Party or whose principal place of business is located within” China.
Savit said that “previous laws on the books were ineffective.”
“Some had cutouts for corporate interests, were easy to circumvent or simply never enforced,” he said. “For example, South Dakota passed a law in the 1970s limiting foreign ownership of farmland to 160 acres, and it was enforced once in 45 years.”
One of the most controversial recent land deals by a foreign buyer emerged in 2022, when Chinese agricultural company Fufeng Group purchased 150 hectares for a corn milling plant in the North Dakota city of Grand Forks, about 20 kilometers from a U.S. Air Force base that is home to advanced drones.
After lawmakers voiced strong concerns that the land could be used to spy on the military facility, the project was terminated by the municipality.
Savit said the institute began to engage fully on the topic in January 2023.
“There was a lot of talk about agricultural land purchases, but in a lot of cases, these states or counties had no mechanism to report this,” he said. “This was completely new.”
AFPI researched what it described as holes in monitoring, as well as ways to collect data. It prepared model legislation, which was shared with local lawmakers sympathetic to the movement through the institute’s advocacy wing.
In Arkansas, nonresident aliens were banned from owning any land in the state, with a two-year grace period for those currently in violation.
In October, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders ordered global seed producer Syngenta to sell 65 hectares of farmland in the state within two years. The Basel, Switzerland-based company was purchased in 2017 by ChemChina, a Chinese state-owned enterprise — a fact that drew attention to the land ownership.
Some states have banned land purchases by any foreign buyer, while others refer to a Commerce Department list of adversaries that cites China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela.
But Savit said that AFPI’s focus is on China.
“Our main principle is that we don’t want the Chinese Communist Party to own land in the U.S.,” he said. “Our bottom line is the CCP.”
AFPI assumes that any Chinese corporation with the ability to invest in the U.S. will have Communist Party representatives on its board, Savit said.
“They’re not here for good reasons,” he said. “Or at the very best, they’re here making money. We don’t want to enrich the CCP, either.”
But this month, a federal appeals court blocked enforcement of a Florida law prohibiting China, Chinese Communist Party officials or members, Chinese business organizations and individuals domiciled in China from purchasing or acquiring any interest in real property. One judge said the law “blatantly violates” protections against discrimination.
On the federal level, no restrictions exist on the amount of private U.S. agricultural land that can be owned by foreign sources. Efforts to include a provision in the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act to require the defense secretary to report on foreign-owned agricultural land located within 80 km of a U.S. military installation failed.
AFPI was established in April 2021, after Trump left office, because many policies were left unfinished without a second term, according to Savit.
“We’re devoted to these policies regardless of any election,” Savit said. “We’re building out a base of research that we want to tap into and refer to regardless of who is in the White House. It is a very long-term project. We call it a 100-year plan.”