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Bill on owning farmland hits wall

A heavily amended bill aimed at banning foreign entities from owning Arkansas agricultural land failed Monday to get out of a House committee.

Senate Bill 312, by Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, and Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Springdale, failed on a voice vote in the House Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development. Although the voice tally appeared evenly divided, no member asked for a roll call.

The original version of the bill would prohibit foreign ownership of Arkansas cropland, regardless of the country. The Senate approved that bill on a 33-1 vote. Johnson and Lundstrum can bring the bill back to House committee for another vote if they desire.

Lundstrum offered an amended version that would restrict land holdings only by a couple of dozen countries on “watch” lists such as the International Traffic in Arms Regulations and the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. Those nations include China, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Cuba, Haiti, Libya, Afghanistan and Vietnam.

Lundstrum’s amendment also added timberland to property in Arkansas that can’t be held by foreign interests under the bill. Johnson’s bill didn’t specifically exempt timberland.

Rep. Joe Jett, R-Success, in Clay County, said he and Johnson are close friends and, in some instances, farm adjacent fields. Johnson’s bill, however, is unnecessary, threatens the livelihoods of their farmer constituents and could bring a drop in land values, Jett said.

Sales to China, in particular, could be threatened, Jett said, adding that China buys a third of Arkansas commodities, especially rice and soybeans. At the very least, Jett said, SB312 “sends a message we don’t want to do business with you,” Jett said.

“That’s a matter of product,” Johnson said. “They make widgets, and we buy their widgets. We make commodities, and they buy our commodities. We want them to be traders, but we don’t want them to come buy our land. There’s almost a half billion of them.”

Asked by Jett to name a foreign-owned farm in Clay County, where both farm, Johnson said he knew of one example. According to a nationwide study by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting in 2019, the Clay County tract is 20 acres owned by a Chinese farmer.

Jett asked Johnson to “guarantee” farmers and House members that his legislation wouldn’t end commodity sales to China. Johnson said he couldn’t make such a guarantee but that stoppages or declines in such sales have not been seen in states with similar legislation.

Harrison Pittman, an attorney and director of the Arkansas Agriculture Law Center, testified that he had several legal concerns over some definitions used in the bill, potential conflicts with language in other state laws, and a lack of clarity throughout much of the bill. He said he was testifying neither for nor against the bill. Some eight to 11 states have similar bans on land purchases, Pittman said.

Johnson said his original effort was “too broad.”

“We have allies that we don’t mind trading with and are buying things,” he said.

Lundstrum said she wants Arkansas landowners be able to sell property for the highest prices possible but that her amendment “protects Arkansas land from bad actors,” from countries now facing U.S. trade embargoes or on state-sponsored terrorism lists.

Both Lundstrum and Johnson noted that many countries, including China and Mexico, prohibit or severely restrict foreign ownership of any property.

Foreign interests own some 775,000 acres of Arkansas forestland and 330,000 acres of Arkansas cropland and pastureland as of December 2019, the most recent figures available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The state has 28.1 million acres defined as agricultural land.

Entities from the Netherlands own the most agricultural land in Arkansas, at some 416,000 acres, apparently because of prospective interests in wind farms, according to USDA figures. Canada is next at 237,584 acres, with its ownership of sawmills and timber interests.

The other top three are businesses from Italy (27,458 acres), Germany (97,062 acres) and the United Kingdom (2,749 acres).