Harrison Pittman is a key thought leader at one of the country’s top entities that follows the intersection of agriculture and the law. In his more than two decades in that role, he has never witnessed the level of scrutiny on foreign farmland ownership that he is seeing now. “What we see going on right now,” Pittman told American Farmland Owner, “…it’s a historically significant shift in this area.”
Pittman is the director of The National Agricultural Law Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock where he has steadily ascended since beginning as a graduate assistant 22 years ago.
“From a big picture perspective…beginning in around 2021, and obviously into 2022, we started to see an uptick, particularly at the state level, in interest about foreign ownership,” Pittman explained.
Harrison Pittman National Agricultural Law Center bio:
Graduate assistant (2001)
Director (Since 2007)
But Pittman feels like things changed dramatically in 2023. “What we’ve seen in 2023 was basically…it was 2021 and 2022…times three or four. It was just huge,” he said as he reflected on the spike in questions that he was receiving.
China became more of a political adversary, in some politicians’ minds. There were questions about how the COVID-19 virus began. Did it originate in a lab in China? How did the virus emanate from that country? There were also continued questions about China’s involvement in stolen intellectual property from the United States (including specialized seed research), plus those spy balloons that flew over several states.
“This was the first in some decades (to have this level of interest in foreign ownership),” Pittman said, “that captured the imagination of a lot in the political realm.
FLASHBACK: In Pittman’s home state of Arkansas, the governor has demanded that a Chinese group divests itself from its ownership of 160 acres of farmland. Read that American Farmland Owner report here.
Pittman said this added political dynamic changed the nature of conversations that he was having with people. He said that in 2021 and 2022, there was “no distinction between, say, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany and China. It was just any kind of foreign ownership is what we want to restrict.”
In many of those cases, he said, the concerns didn’t develop into changes in the law. However, in 2023 they did, with more focus on certain countries. China, North Korea, Iran and Russia became the focus.
Nearly three dozen states have now worked to limit foreign ownership with other states looking at the possibility.
Much of the foreign ownership, as Pittman points out, is concentrated in the forestry industry (Canada, the Netherlands and Germany). There is also foreign investment with leases in the wind and solar industries.
The result is that about three percent of all privately held land is either foreign owned or leased, he estimated. Where does this go from here? Pittman expects more focus on restricting foreign ownership of land next year. “I think it feels pretty strong. I think that we’ll still see some activity in 2024….at the federal and state level.”
He is watching discussions on the Farm Bill. Congress failed to pass a new Farm Bill in 2023 and instead extended the current provisions. But Pittman wonders whether a 2024 Farm Bill will also include language involving restrictions on foreign land ownership. “That’s a legislative vehicle for any type of federal action dealing with foreign ownership,” he said. “We still don’t know how that’s going to play out on the federal level.”
NOTE: Harrison Pittman will be a keynote speaker at the 17th Annual Land Investment Expo in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, on January 9th, 2024. He will discuss the issues driving concerns about foreign farmland ownership and what changes could be ahead.
To check out the full list of speakers, unique experiences and to register, click here.