Buying the farm: Pa. lawmakers concerned about foreign ownership of agricultural land

‘It’s hard enough for farmers and especially new farmers to purchase land here these days, it’s even harder when you have folks from other countries trying to buy land in the USA and drive the prices up on everyone,’ Vogel said

By: - October 28, 2023 6:00 am

Central Manor Dairy farm in Washington Boro, Pa (Photo from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

When a Chinese food manufacturer bought 300 acres of farmland in Grand Forks, North Dakota in 2022 it set off a wave of concern among lawmakers, farmers, and other stakeholders, who called the operation, approximately 20 minutes from Grand Forks Air Force Base, a national security risk.

Since then, concern has continued to grow about the impact of foreign-owned farms and farmland across the United States, including in Pennsylvania. 

At a Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee hearing last month, U.S. Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) called foreign ownership of U.S. farmland a “national security issue” as well as a “food security issue.”

“I’m concerned with foreign countries’ and foreign corporations’ ownership in our agriculture supply chain,” Fetterman said. 

The freshman Senator isn’t the only one concerned. 

Pennsylvania U.S. Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-15th District) said that foreign ownership and investment in U.S. agricultural land has “nearly doubled in the past decade.” 

The troubling trend prompted Thompson and Rep. James Comer (R-K.Y.) to send a letter to the Government Accountability Office in October 2022 requesting a full “review of foreign investment in U.S. farmland and its potential impact on national security, trade, and food security as well as U.S. government efforts to monitor these acquisitions.”

According to a 2020 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, foreign persons held nearly 37.6 million acres of U.S. agricultural land, totaling 2.9% of all privately held agricultural land and 1.7% of all land in the United States.

“This growing trend has elevated concerns regarding national security in a time of uncertainty that is already compounded by challenges to our supply chain infrastructure, high input costs for farmers, and geopolitical pressures,” Thompson, who chairs the House Committee on Agriculture, said. “It is critical for Congress to have a thorough understanding of foreign investment in our nation’s agricultural land.”

Foreign Farms in Pa. 

Pennsylvania is one of 14 states to have laws restricting foreign ownership of agricultural land and other nonagricultural real estate, according to a Congressional Research Service report in January. 

The issue of foreign investments in agricultural land has state lawmakers grateful that Pennsylvania has laws in place that limit non-residents and foreign governments from acquiring more than 100 acres of land. 

“I know some other states, who did not have a law similar to ours, have recently started to try to get something passed due to the increased concern of this type of stuff happening,” state Sen. Elder Vogel (R-Beaver) told the Capital-Star. “I commend Pennsylvania’s congressional members who recognize the potential danger to the national security of our country and also the potential danger of foreign entities controlling our prime agricultural land. I hope the federal government takes a good long look at this issue.”

Vogel, who chairs the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, worries that foreign competition for agricultural land could price Pennsylvania farmers out of land purchases. 

“It’s hard enough for farmers and especially new farmers to purchase land here these days, it’s even harder when you have folks from other countries trying to buy land in the USA and drive the prices up on everyone,” Vogel said.

While the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture reports that the vast majority of Pennsylvania’s 52,700 farms are owned by family farmers rather than corporate interests, the department is also tasked with monitoring data from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency on foreign land holdings to ensure state law is followed. 

We are pleased to have strong voices representing Pennsylvania’s $132.5 billion agriculture industry in Congress,” Department of Agriculture Spokesperson Shannon Powers told the Capital-Star. “We would hope that any change to U.S. policy does not hinder the rights of Pennsylvanians to purchase or sell land held in other countries.”

Powers pointed out that in addition to laws restricting the amount of agricultural land that foreign entities and non-residents can own, Pennsylvania has taken other measures to protect small farms and preserve farmland. 

Pennsylvania has led the nation in the number of farms and acres of farmland preserved since it began its preservation efforts in 1988. 

To date, the Farmland Preservation Program has protected 6,284 farms and 630,302 acres in 58 counties across the Commonwealth from future development, according to the Department. 

Bailey Thumm, federal affairs specialist for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau said that the organization’s 28,000 members from small and mid-sized farms across the Commonwealth are “definitely” concerned about foreign investments in agricultural land. 

Despite that, the Bureau and its federal counterpart — The American Farm Bureau Federation — are remaining neutral on legislative policy related to foreign ownership of agricultural land while more research is being done, Thumm said, adding that the Farm Bureau doesn’t want to make a “knee-jerk reaction.”

“It could affect our partners across the country and across the world,” Thumm said. “So we just want to make sure that we’re taking the right steps here before we jump into anything.”


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Cassie Miller
Cassie Miller

A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry.