While it may seem like the purview of spy novels, the concern that foreign government agencies considered enemies could, or have, bought land in Florida is severe enough that two pieces of legislation working through the Legislature aim to end the practice.
The bills are a part of an effort spearheaded by Florida’s newly elected Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson, who warns that bad actors may be looking to scoop up land in the state for nefarious purposes.
The effort is called the “Florida's Strategic Land Plan.” It is aimed at restricting the purchase, lease or holding of a controlling interest in agricultural land by nonresident aliens, foreign companies or foreign governments.
“A lot of those properties are close to our military installations. A lot of these properties are strategic agricultural lands,” Simpson said at an appearance last month at The Economic Club of Florida in Tallahassee.
“It's not just China, but any of our identified national enemies — which the legislature will put together — will not be able to purchase land in the state of Florida any longer, our agricultural land or around our military installations.”
According to a statement announcing the legislation, 1.3 million acres of agricultural land in Florida was under foreign ownership as of 2020. Simpson says that in addition to stopping purchases, the bills have a procedure for current landowners who fall into the enemies’ category to divest themselves.
As for who will be named an enemy, Simpson says legislators will come up with a list — but it will be fluid given the nature of geopolitics, where today’s ally is tomorrow’s adversary.
The two bills — SB 264 and HB1355 — define the “foreign country of concern” as the People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Republic of Cuba, the Venezuelan regime of Nicolás Maduro and the Syrian Arab Republic.
The Senate bill was introduced March 7 by Sen. Jay Collins, R-Tampa, chairman of the agriculture committee. And the House bill was filed the same day by Rep. David Borrero, R-Sweetwater.
Collins, a former Army Green Beret, says in a statement that he proposed the changes because he’s seen “first-hand the impact foreign adversaries’ involvement can have on infrastructure, supply chains and national security here at home and across the globe.”
If passed and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the laws would go into effect July 1. The legislation also calls for government entities to require an affidavit from applicants before giving incentives and to keep governmental entities from knowingly entering into certain contracts.
The description of the House bill adds that “certain foreign principals” that own or buy property will have “to register with (a) specified department.”
The idea of banning the sale of Florida land to some foreign buyers has also been touted DeSantis who, at a January press conference, said “We don't want to have holdings by hostile nations.”
“And so if you look at the Chinese Communist Party, they’ve been very active throughout the Western Hemisphere in gobbling up land and investing in different things.”
While the idea that hostile foreign governments are scheming to snatch up land is fruitful territory for the conspiracy minded, and maybe too easily dismissed, the reality is that in 2021, 40.8 million acres of agricultural land nationwide was owned by foreign persons or entities, U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows. That’s 3.1% of all privately-held land in the United States.
China, and individuals and entities who reside there, accounts for 383,935 acres, or 0.9%, of that, according to the USDA. Canada and Canadians own 9.7 million acres, or 12.8%, of the total.
The numbers were part of a report put together for members of Congress by the Congressional Research Service. CRS is a think tank of sorts that is part of the legislative branch and works within the Library of Congress.
Even though China’s holdings are relatively small, CRS says there has been more scrutiny given to Chinese investments in the food and agriculture sector over the past decade.
This is in light of Shuanghui International, now WH Group, buying the world’s largest pork producer, Virgnia’s Smithfield Foods, in 2013 and Chinese food manufacturer Fufeng Group buying 300 acres near the Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota in 2022. Fufeng plans to build a wet corn milling and biofermentation plant on the land.
But the full scope of how many countries or individuals tied to governments own land in the U.S., and who they are, is not really known.
According to federal law, foreign investors who buy or have an interest in agriculture must report transactions to USDA. This law is the Agriculture Foreign Disclosure Act, passed in 1978. Failure to report is subject to civil penalty up to 25% of the fair market value of the land.
CRS, in the January report, say there have been inaccuracies and underreporting found in USDA's records. And it quotes a report from the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, which found data collected as required by law are “not complete, contain errors and omissions, do not track sales of foreign-held U.S. farmland and may not accurately reflect changes over time.”
The USDA, in a statement to the Business Observer, says it is "working with members of Congress to modernize and improve AFIDA’s intent. At the same time, USDA is taking steps to strengthen its application of the current statute."
The department say it is evaluating its penalty structure for late and erroneous filings and modernizing the way it collects and disseminates the underlying data. This along with increasing outreach to people and companies dealing in foreign land sales.
As for what’s happening in Florida, the two bills are working through the Legislature, which went into Session March 7.
“When you’re thinking about 50, 100 years from now, think about more and more your farmland being bought up by these foreign enemies. Or think about one of our current allies that becomes a foreign enemy,” says Simpson.
He adds, “Florida is leading on that in this country because we’re going to protect not only our farmlands, our military installations here, but we're looking at it, literally, in perpetuity.”