Hurtado praises USDA’s efforts to protect ag land

Agency proposes to shore up reporting practices when it comes to agricultural land grabs from foreign investors

Equipment ready to continue harvesting alfalfa outside of Kingsburg. (Kenny Goodman)
Equipment ready to continue harvesting alfalfa outside of Kingsburg. (Kenny Goodman)
Darren Fraser
Published December 25, 2023  • 
11:00 am

SACRAMENTO – Senator Melissa Hurtado is all in on the USDA’s latest move to bring the public into the conversation about foreign agricultural land purchases, especially after some notable cases.

In a recent announcement, Hurtado, D-16th District, applauded the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) decision to solicit public input on how foreign countries and individuals report agricultural land purchases in the U.S. The USDA’s action follows two high-profile cases involving two groups, including a Chinese company, that purchased multiple tracts of land near U.S. Air Force bases in California and North Dakota.

“Agricultural land acquisitions by foreign actors’ require increased transparency and that is why I have attempted to address this issue through multiple pieces of legislation as well as A Recent California Senate Agriculture Committee Oversight Hearing,” Hurtado said in a Dec. 18 press release.

In her statement, she continued with, “Earlier this year, we witnessed first-hand how an investment group strategically obscuring its ownership and intentions eventually resorted to litigation against farmers and undercut the public’s right to weigh in on the preservation of agriculture lands.”

Hurtado also noted, had the investors been preemptively required to provide information about their intentions on their land holdings forms, local agencies and the public could have provided their viewpoint in that part of the process.

“Instead of an afterthought by investors who seek to override local zoning laws meant to preserve agriculture lands,” she said.

SOME NOTABLE CASES

This investment group Hurtado referred to was Flannery Associates, LLC (Flannery), a Delaware-based investment group. Last July, the Wall Street Journal reported that since 2018, Flannery has been purchasing land around Travis Air Force Base in Solano County. The group spent nearly $1 billion acquiring 52,000 acres of land near the base, making Flannery the largest landowner in the county.

It was later disclosed that the group included a number of Silicon Valley venture capitalists. Flannery’s designs for the property were never fully made public. The group surveyed Solano County residents regarding their opinions about the construction of a mega development on the land, including housing tracts, parks and other facilities.

A less ambitious but more suspicious land acquisition occurred in 2022 and involved a Chinese food manufacturer and Grand Forks Air Force Base In North Dakota.

In 2022, the Fufeng Group, a Chinese food company, purchased 370 acres of farmland located 12 miles from the base. Grand Forks Air Force Base is home to some of the country’s most sensitive drone technology and a space networking center.

After word got out about the sale, the Air Force applied pressure on the city of Grand Forks, which eventually denied issuing building permits to the company.

FURTHERING THE SAFEGUARDS

In response to these developments, the USDA is looking to the public for their opinion on how foreign filers report land holdings in the nation for the The Agriculture Foreign Investment Disclosure Act, which is responsible for the implementation of laws and regulations when it comes to foreign ownership of U.S. agricultural land.

According to the USDA’s Dec. 15 press release, the Farm Service Agency (FSA) will use this input to update the Agriculture Foreign Investment Disclosure Act Report form to include data on long-term lessees, data on how foreign investment impacts agricultural producers and rural communities, and also to gather geospatial information.

“USDA seeks to improve the information that we are collecting about foreign ownership and leasing of U.S. agricultural land,” said Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation Robert Bonnie. “This process, which includes public input on changes to the form, will lead to more insightful reporting to Congress and the public.”

Along with this action, in January 2023, Hurtado introduced Senate Bill (SB) 224 – the Food and Farm Security Act.

According to the Legislative Counsel’s Digest, “This bill would prohibit a foreign government from purchasing, acquiring, leasing, or holding a controlling interest, as defined, in agricultural land within the State of California. The bill would exempt land held by foreign governments before January 1, 2024, from that prohibition.”

In her press release, referring to SB 224, Hurtado said, “(It) would have put California in control of its food supply chain by preventing foreign governments, not individual persons, from purchasing agricultural land, and required an annual report on foreign ownership of California’s resources.”

SB 224 never made it out of committee, but Hurtado said she will continue to work on policies that promote California’s role in both the U.S. and global food supply chains.

Darren Fraser
Reporter