Members of the Foreign Purchase of Farmland Study Committee meet for the first time in August of 2023
The legislatively approved study committee holds first meeting, agrees that Mississippi has laws on the books to prevent large holdings by foreign interests but lacks enforcement.
In the midst of the 2023 Legislative session, a bill authored by State Representative Beckie Currie (R) was brought forward to take a deeper dive into foreign entities who own land in Mississippi.
On Thursday, Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Andy Gipson (R), along with the appointed members of the study Committee, met at the State Capitol to begin the dialogue.
“It’s a big issue because food security is national security,” said Commissioner Gipson. “Everyone understands that America is strong because of their food production capabilities. Not only in feeding ourselves, but people around the world”
According to Gipson, one out of every three acres of production in Mississippi are destined for an international market.
State Rep. Currie said the legislation came forward after it was brought to her attention last year that China recently purchased land acreage in the state.
“Because China is buying land around us, it was concerning to me,” said Rep. Currie.
According to a 2020 report by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), foreign agriculture holdings have increased by an average of 2.2 million acres annually since 2015. The data indicates the majority of the pastureland purchased was done so to construct wind towers that are mostly not being utilized.
Since 2010, China in particular, has gone from owning 13,720 acres of land in the U.S. to roughly 352,140 acres.
Over 20 states have already passed laws regarding foreign ownership of land, including Mississippi. The Mississippi Constitution gives the Legislature authority to limit, restrict or prevent the acquisition of any land by a non-resident alien or corporation. Commissioner Gipson said this outlines a general prohibition against non-resident aliens owning Mississippi land.
Current state law in Mississippi does allow for a non-resident to hold no more than 320 acres of land for the purpose of industrial development and no more than five acres for residential purposes.
“It looks like to me, Commissioner, that we’ve got laws in place; we’re just not enforcing them,” said Committee member and Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee State Senator Chuck Younger (R).
“Bingo,” said Commissioner Gipson. “We have the laws. We need some definitions. Unlike the USDA has, we need someone to enforce it.”
The state is also required to recognize a treaty set in place by the federal government, which trumps the state law. Commissioner Gipson said this particularly impacts Mississippi since the 1957 treaty was entered into by the U.S. government with the Netherlands. Both Americans and residents of the Netherlands can acquire land in each other’s countries.
Much of the information the Committee has access to on farmland holdings is provided by the USDA under the Agriculture Foreign Investment Disclosure Act of 1978 (AFIDA).
As of December 31, 2021, there were 777,176 acres of land in Mississippi with foreign interest, or 2.6% of all state land, and 757,816 acres of agriculture land owned by foreign interests. The Netherlands were holding Ag and Non-Ag land at 357,582 acres, Germany held 60,352, and China held 88 acres, according to the USDA.
“The USDA admits that they don’t have the resources to go through all the land records and peel back who really owns the land,” said Gipson. “USDA goes back a few layers, but not far enough to really know.”
Prior to the Committee’s first gathering, Gipson reached out to the Attorney General’s office for an opinion on what happens if there is a land title transfer to a foreign investor in excess of 320 acres, as stated in the law.
According to the Attorney General’s office the law does not specify any consequence for that type of violation, only that “all land held or acquired contrary to this section shall escheat to the state.”
Ultimately, land records are being filed at the chancery clerk level for all 82 counties. Commissioner Gipson said in order for the laws to be enforced there must be a process to do that that doesn’t create a burden for farmers, landowners, or any one state agency.
Moving forward, the Committee looks to:
- Determine the total amount of agricultural land under foreign ownership in Mississippi and the percentage change in that ownership over the last 10 years; and
- Identify the current use of foreign-owned land and the extent of changes in foreign ownership of water rights, water desalination facilities, energy production, storage, and distribution facilities in the state.
The Committee is also tasked with determining the current prohibitions in place and why those have not been enforced.
Rep. Currie said she was encouraged that the Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce stepped up to the plate to lead the research on the issue.
“Andy Gipson has done tons of research on this issue and has become a wealth of information regarding this topic,” said Currie.
The Committee is comprised of Commissioner Gipson, Attorney General Lynn Fitch (R) or her designee, House and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairmen Rep. Bill Pigott (R) and Sen. Younger, House and Senate Judiciary A Chairmen Rep. Angela Cockerham (I) and Sen. Brice Wiggins (R), and one appointee from the Governor, Lt. Governor, and Speaker of the House. Those are David Hall, Meredith Allen, and Ted Kendall, respectively.
The Committee must submit their final report to the Legislature by December 1st and will publish their findings here.