Report Documents Foreign Ownership of U.S. Farm Lands

October 28, 2009

Foreign ownership of privately-held US agricultural lands is on the rise for the second year in a row, after holding fairly steady from 1998-2006.

For the reporting year ending Feb. 29, 2008, foreign holdings totaled 20.9 million acres (or about 1.6% of all privately-owned agricultural lands), an increase of about 1.4 million acres from the year before. Most of the increase in both 2008 and 2007 was in timber lands, which are considered agricultural by the US Dept. of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency, the author of the annual report. Foreign ownership, which is identified by state and county, occurs in all 50 states and Puerto Rico.

Many communities likely are interested in this topic, since outside landowners, whether from within the US or other countries, can affect the local economy, politics (including land use planning and zoning), and culture. In addition, this information plays a role in larger national issues such as foreign investment in the US, food security, and agricultural subsidies.

The foreign ownership issue may be of most interest in states where such ownership represents the highest percentage of all privately-held agricultural lands, which include ME (18.7%), HI (8.8%), WA (7.2%), NV (5.2%), and AL (5.1%). Other states, such as TX, are among the leaders in total acreage of such foreign-owned lands, though the percentage of all such lands in the state is relatively low.

In general, foreign ownership, in terms of either percentage or total acreage, is highest in Maine, the South, and the West (including OR and WA, which had major recent increases in timber land foreign ownership), and lowest in portions of the upper Great Plains, New England, and the Mid-Atlantic.

As of the end of February 2008, forest lands constituted 60% of all foreign-owned private agricultural lands, while 13% of such lands were cropland and 27% were pasture and other agricultural lands.

The report highlights a handful of countries whose citizens or companies have the most land, including Canada, with 34% of the total, the Netherlands (18%), the United Kingdom (7%), and Germany (6%). There is also a breakout for Ireland for each state and county.

However, all other countries are lumped together, and it remains very difficult to break out cumulative ownership by any of these countries (such as China, whose ownership of US assets is increasingly becoming of interest). That's because the technology used by USDA for this report precludes any cumulative assessment of the data.

Instead, you need to go in person to either each state's agriculture department office, or each USDA county office, to gather pertinent data for that state or county (or you can gather all data in person from USDA offices in Washington, D.C.; copies are 20 cents per page). The same limitation holds true for identification of individual parcel foreign ownership, or information such as acreage or current land use; only the records at the state agriculture department or county or national USDA offices contain that information.

USDA says it should have a comprehensive computerized system for collecting and analyzing the data at the beginning of 2011. However, that system isn't expected to be publicly available online either; instead, you'll need to submit a request and have the agency provide you with a customized report.

A similar process is needed in the interim if you want to try to avoid having to travel to individual offices. Contact spokesman Andre Kok (202-720-9733) to see if he can have his agency's staff assemble a specialized report for you, which may be possible if it is of a smaller scope.

The recent increase in foreign ownership of U.S. agricultural lands is part of a larger trend of increases in such "foreign direct investment" that has risen sharply since a trough in 2002, according to the U.S. Dept. of Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis:

In general, foreign direct investment is seen as beneficial, since it can provide some local jobs and capital, and help to offset sometimes negative perceptions of similar U.S. investments in other countries. But there also may be perceived drawbacks, such as unwanted intrusions into local affairs.

For additional information and data on the foreign direct investment issue, see:

If you want to integrate the USDA's foreign ownership data with that for federal subsidies paid for various agricultural products, one starting point is the extensive data tabulated by the Environmental Working Group: