James Rainwater may not be a household name in Minnesota politics.
But on Tuesday morning in a congressional candidate forum discussion in southern Minnesota, the attorney caught the attention of farmers at the Farmfest outdoor shed in Redwood County.
“I’ve heard stories of Bill Gates buying hundreds of thousands of acres for farms,” said Lake City’s Rainwater. “I think the little guy needs help.”
It’s been a summer of hardship in the farming country, with a flurry of national reports about Chinese investors and green billionaires buying US farmland and gaining control over agribusiness initiatives.
Either way, the nation looked to North Dakota.
Earlier this year, a Grand Forks brawl erupted after a China-backed investment firm bought 300 acres of land within 20 minutes of an air force base. The next corn mill the group hopes to develop – still awaiting approval – exercised thorough scrutiny of national security concerns.
Also this summer, in a foreign act, North Dakota Attorney General Approved Sale of Plots of Land in Pembina and Walsh Counties to the Red River Trust, a Washington-based entity with ties to tech billionaire Gates.
In Minnesota, only 1.6% of state farmland is owned by foreign entities, according to the latest report from the United States Department of Agriculture. State laws against foreign and corporate ownership of farms keep the state relatively safe from interlocution by buyers. Only citizens, permanent residents, or entities with less than 20% foreign investment can own Minnesota farmland.
“The vast majority – 70 to 80 percent – of farmland is sold to neighboring farmers,” said Glen Fladeboe, of Fladeboe Land, a brokerage specializing in the sale of farmland in Minnesota.
Doug Spanier, an attorney with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said that in addition to exemptions for timber and wind energy easements on farmland, state law ensures that farmland remains controlled primarily by farmers or their owners. .
“The Midwestern states all have some sort of law that prevents corporate farms,” Spanier said. “And no foreign citizen can own agricultural land unless he has been legally admitted to the United States for permanent residence.”
However, both cases in North Dakota could, feasibly, occur in Minnesota. It is not against state law for a foreign investor to own a grinding plant. And Gates’ Red River Trust has announced plans to lease the purchased land to farmers, which could allay concerns about corporate agriculture, as it did in the North Dakota AG perspective.
Officials from Campbell Farms, the Grafton, ND-based potato farm sold to the Red River Trust, did not respond to multiple interview requests. And it is not believed that Gates still owns land in Minnesota, although he already owns plots in neighboring Wisconsin and Iowa.
But growing public concern has worried some farmers.
At the annual agricultural industry meeting in southwestern Minnesota last week, chatter among farmers leaning on new combines or lining up for pork chops centered around historic inflation, which pushed up the cost of fertilizers and diesel fuel.
But just behind the complaints about the cost of filling the tractor or getting nitrogen came rumors about who was buying American farmland.
“I don’t think there are many out-of-state or out-of-country land purchases in our area,” said Dustin Johnson, a Dawson farmer, who was inspecting heavy equipment on Tuesday. “But it’s still the biggest investors who are buying land, competing with farmers for it.”
“I’m a little worried about that [Chinese land buyers]”said Adam Lund, who also grows close to Dawson.” But on the other hand, [China is] a large importer of soybeans and a certain amount of corn and many different agricultural products, so it’s a difficult situation. “
Over the past decade, China’s Belt and Road Initiative to invest in global infrastructure has come to US farmland, with Chinese buyers owning nearly 200,000 acres by 2020. And the alarm for foreign or plutocratic ownership of US farmland comes at a time of growing concentration – and even suspicion – in the agricultural supply line.
Last month, United States Representative Dusty Johnson, a Republican from South Dakota, called Gates to appear before the House Agriculture Committee to tell the country what Gates intends to do with his 270,000 acres of land, citing the billionaire’s past remarks urging developed nations to abandon animal protein. In late July, U.S. Minnesota GOP Representative Tom Emmer 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 conflict over the mill – which city officials advertise as an economic opportunity for farmers – has torn the community apart, with debates sometimes tinged with anti-Asian bias.
In Minnesota, the state enacted alien farm and farm laws in the 1970s, though Spanier insists some bans on the former have been in place since before statehood. A struggle for ownership of foreign agricultural properties last erupted in the early 2000s, when Dutch dairy farmers sought leniency from state law to stay on their farms. Under a recent exemption, an E-2 visa holder can be a milk farmer – and only a milk farmer – on no more than 1,500 acres.
While both direct and foreign corporate ownership are prohibited, there is room for maneuver. With its recent acquisition of a major poultry supplement, for example, Minnetonka-based Cargill inherits contracts with farmers who distribute birds and seeds to farmers. And in North Itasca County, a whopping 150,000 acres are owned by overseas-based lumber operators.
The The campaign of recent years by the nation’s wealthiest residents for private land purchase often, though not always, has environmental overtones. In Montana, a foundation has purchased nearly half a million acres of land that it is converting into a nature reserve. In South Dakota and Nebraska, media mogul Ted Turner owns a ranch where bison and prairie dogs live. And last year, the Land Report announced it Gates is now the largest farmland owner in the nation.
The image of the raised in Seattle technology billionaire riding a tractor sparked giggles from two farmers who attended the congressional forums on Tuesday. But a trend that evokes associations with the English landed gentry of yore is not found in the very heart of the earth.
“Who of all of this is very important,” said Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, speaking on the sidelines of Farmfest on Tuesday. “But I have a bigger concern with the bare purchase of farmland and concentration in too few hands.”
On Tuesday, Ellison and Gary Wertish, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, unveiled a “trust-destroying” utility task vehicle (UTV) decorated with a boxing glove on the door. The boxer’s demand for better prices for farmers resonates with small producers who feel the farming system has become too cumbersome, corporate and international to navigate from their porch.
But building an agricultural economy with only American producers and customers is an older idea than the ancient International Harvester tractor sitting in the ditch. U.S.-based agribusiness companies charter ships in the Black Sea and deliver grain around the world. Meanwhile, two of the nation’s largest meat producers, Smithfield and JBS, are owned by Chinese and Brazilian investors respectively.
In other words, the American farm has long since gone global.
Recognizing that consolidation was inevitable, Wertish said he was still concerned when he heard about the sale of farmland to outside entities, be it Gates or foreign investors.
“It’s about losing control,” Wertish said, comparing the loss of the locally owned farm to the moving of mom and dad by department stores. “Because once control is lost, the profits of that land don’t stay in the local community.”