In the western mountain states, there is a land rush underway. It’s not for the local residents. It’s not for beginning ranchers or farmers. It’s for a very select group of individuals – billionaires.
In a story for The Washington Post, Karen Heller writes about one piece of land up for sale: It is “5,000 gasp-inducing acres with a barn, guesthouses, and manager’s residence. The property is John Ford-worthy, the territory of myth and dreams, a verdant valley teeming with wildlife under a trio of spectacular 11,000-foot peaks. List price: $71 million.” None of the characters in Ford’s western movies could have afforded the natural settings where his films were made.
For the person who buys that $71 million idyllic ranch, it might be just another piece of land. The 5,000-acre ranch could be swallowed up and hardly noticed by a number of America’s mega-landowners.
The Emmerson family, whose fortune is made in the lumber industry, owns an estimated 2.3 million acres of land. Billionaire John Malone owns 2.2 million acres, the Reed family 2.1 million, and Ted Tuner 2.0 million.
These four individuals, or families, each own as much or more land than there is in Swift, Stevens, Grant, and Pope counties combined.
However, the billionaire who ranks 47th in landownership in America with only 268,984 acres recently generated controversy when a land trust he is tied to bought 2,100 acres of land in North Dakota in June.
While Bill Gates ranks relatively low among billionaire landowners, he is the largest farmland owner in America. His holdings stretch over 18 states.
“I’ve gotten a big earful on this from clear across the state, it’s not even from that neighborhood,” North Dakota State Agriculture Commissioner, Republican Doug Goehring told KFYR-TV. “Those people are upset, but there are others that are just livid about this.”
Individual Sq/Miles Acres
Emmerson family 3,641 2,330,000
John Malone 3,438 2,200,000
Reed family 3,281 2,100,000
Ted Turner 3,125 2,000,000
Kroenke Ranches 2,542 1,627,000
*Editor’s note – These statistics are from the annual Land Report 100.
County Sq/Mi Total acres
Swift 752 481,280
Stevens 575 368,000
Grant 575 368,000
Pope 717 458,880
Big Stone 528 337,920
Total 3,147 2,014,080
Billionaires aren’t the only ones creating concern about agricultural production in America. Foreign firms are investing in American agriculture and food production.
Back in February, the Grand Forks City Council gave initial approval to a Chinese company’s proposed $700 million corn-milling facility on a 370-acre site, the AP reported. It will apparently use about 25 million bushels of corn annually. Another concern about this Chinese company’s purchase of North Dakota farmland is that it is only 16 miles away from the Grand Forks Air Force base.
Smithfield Foods is owned by a Chinese company, and JBs is owned by a Brazilian firm. They are two of the largest meat processors in America.
We see another potential for pressure to build on land sales in Minnesota.
What pressure will come to bear on the purchase of Minnesota farmland if the 22-year mega-drought now devastating crop and animal agriculture in the west and southwest continue? It is already the worst drought in more than 1,200 years and is expected to continue, fueled by our changing climate. Some scientific studies say it could last until 2030.
Some worry the increasing number of 100-degree days, low soil moisture, increasingly strict rules on water use, and fires will put many ranchers and farmers out of business. It is feared that a warming climate will extend the severe drought even longer. Will some of the farming and ranching operations in those states look to Minnesota for land for grazing and crop production? Will it look to our water resources?
For years now, farmers have known they aren’t just bidding against their neighbors for cropland on the auction block; they are bidding against investors who aren’t interested in farming themselves. As long as good money is made in agriculture, the investors will keep bidding up land values, taking land out of local ownership. At the same time, they increase the tax burden on local farmers.
Republican District 12 Minnesota Sen. Torrey Westrom, chair of the Agriculture and Rural Development Finance Committee, is also concerned about corporate and foreign involvement in agriculture.
“Recent news coverage ‘confirms even more that this issue probably deserves a hearing and thorough review of our current laws,’” he told the Star Tribune. “While I do believe that we have good measures in place to prevent foreign and corporate land ownership, it’d be good for a refresher course for legislators and the public, there is no harm in making sure our system can’t be exploited or our food supply is put at risk of foreign ownership.”
Westrom is seeking reelection to the state Senate in the new District 12, and if elected, is likely to continue as the ag committee chair.
Minnesota law does put limits on corporate farmland ownership. “In general, the law bars corporations, limited liability companies, pension or investment funds, trusts, and limited partnerships from farming, owning, or leasing farmland in Minnesota,” a Minnesota House Research paper on the 1973 corporate farming law states. That law has been revised at least 30 times since.
“The purpose of the law is to ‘encourage and protect the family farm as a basic economic unit, to insure it as the most socially desirable mode of agricultural production, and to enhance and promote the stability and well-being of rural society in Minnesota and the nuclear family,’” the paper says.
Farming, according to the state law, is defined as growing agricultural products, growing livestock, producing livestock products, milk and dairy goods production, or growing fruits as well as other horticultural products. However, there are exceptions to the law.
If this law intends to truly protect the family farm, it needs review and strengthening considering the multiple pressures it now faces.