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Tipsheet

'Inexcusable': USDA Blasted for Failing to Protect Farmland From Foreign Adversaries

Danny Johnston

An internal United States Department of Agriculture memo — obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Agri-Pulse — revealed that the USDA failed to enforce penalties for failures to report foreign acquisition of American agricultural land for years, even as the number of foreign acquisition disclosures "increased sharply" in the same period. Now, more than two dozen House Republicans are demanding answers.

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A letter sent to Biden's USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack on Monday led by House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-NY) notes "deep concerns" about the memo's revelations and slams the USDA for showing a "complete lack of accountability and oversight of foreign acquisition of U.S. agricultural land."

Stefanik's letter — signed by more than 25 of her fellow House Republicans — explains that the Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act (AFIDA) "requires disclosure of any foreign acquisition of U.S. agricultural land to the Secretary of Agriculture and in a report to Congress."

A "failure to report these disclosures, late-filed reports, or any reports that contain incomplete, misleading, or false information can result in penalties up to 25 percent of the market value of the foreign person's interest in the land," explains the USDA Farm Service Agency disclosure handbook.

According to Stefanik's letter, amid a surge in disclosures made between 2015 to 2018, "USDA did not assess a single penalty for failure to report foreign acquisition of U.S. agricultural land during this period and this lapse of accountability was not included in USDA's AFIDA annual report to Congress during that timeframe."

The USDA's internal memo that was obtained blames, "limited staff (and a new program manager)" as the reason "no penalties were assessed between 2015-18." Instead, the memo says "the top priority was making sure the annual report to Congress was as accurate as possible." The annual reports, though, according to Stefanik's letter, didn't mention the years-long lapse in USDA's assessment of penalties. 

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Stefanik and her GOP colleagues say the "memo's stated reasoning for these failures of staffing challenges and turnover is unacceptable, especially given the four-year period in which these failures occurred."

"Foreign ownership of agricultural land threatens small family farm operations and the overall health of the agricultural supply chain," the Republican lawmakers' letter explains. "As the foreign acquisition of farmland increases, it is evident that more oversight is needed to protect local farmers, rural communities, and our national security," they add. "Food security is national security, and we must work to protect the finite amount of agricultural land we have in America."

The internal USDA memo that first brought the enforcement issue to the forefront states that the number of parcels acquired by foreign persons jumped from 911 in 2012 to 6,363 in 2021. The memo also notes that foreign persons "reported an interest in nearly 37.6 million acres of U.S. agricultural land" at the end of 2020 — across all fifty states and Puerto Rico. USDA's memo explains those holdings account for 2.9 percent of all privately-held agricultural land and 1.7 percent of all the land in the United States. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, USDA notes that Chinese primary-investor filers owned 325,686 acres of U.S. farmland in 27 states at the end of 2020, while holdings by other adversaries such as Russia, Iran, and North Korea are "tiny."

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Saying that Congress "cannot allow failures to report foreign acquisition of U.S. agricultural land to go unpunished," Stefanik and her House colleagues request an explanation and answers for how the system that's supposed to protect American land from foreign adversaries broke down:

1. Why did USDA fail to assess penalties as described in the memo?

2. What actions has USDA taken to address these issues since the memo was produced?

3. What is USDA's course of action to address these issues in the future?

4. Will USDA pursue applying retroactive AFIDA enforcement penalties for the period from 2015-2018?

In addition, Stefanik's letter requests "any and all correspondence" concerning USDA's failure to assess penalties. USDA has until April 1 to reply to the queries, though it's hard to imagine the answers provided will be entirely satisfactory since the damage has, largely, already been done. 

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