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Chinese firms, individuals own 14K acres of Virginia farmland: USDA

Gov. Glenn Youngkin stand with his hands clasped as people in the background applaud
Scott Elmquist
VPM News file
Gov. Glenn Youngkin stressed Chinese investments in Virginia during his State of the Commonwealth address in January. And he's taken that message to the General Assembly, which has approved a ban on certain governments from purchasing farmland in the state.

Those holdings were all purchased at least 10 years ago.

Virginia elected officials passed a bill Monday banning the sale of agricultural land to “foreign adversaries,” with China specifically in mind. The bill now heads to Gov. Glenn Youngkin to sign into law. But when asked, supporters of the effort have not specified current landholdings.

“Do you have any idea right now, how much land or business interest China owns currently in the Commonwealth of Virginia?” Fox News host Laura Ingraham asked Youngkin on Friday.

Youngkin didn’t answer, instead saying he's concerned about the state's military and national security infrastructure.

Sen. Richard Stuart (R-Westmoreland), who sponsored the Senate version of the ban, also did not answer when asked in a Senate hearing about how much farmland China holds in the state. Stuart cited a news report saying that foreign adversaries own 1.6 million acres of farmland nationwide.

The latest U.S. Department of Agriculture records obtained by VPM News through a public records request — which include information through the end of 2021 — indicate that about 14,000 acres of Virginia farmland are owned by Chinese companies or individuals. None of that land was purchased during the past 10 years.

U.S. Department of Agriculture figures say foreign investors own about 3.1% or 40 million acres of forest land and farmland nationally, and that China owns less than 1% of foreign-owned acres.

The bills reference a U.S. Commerce Department list of foreign adversaries, which also includes Cuba, people connected to the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Russia, North Korea and Iran. But China has dominated discussions during the legislative process — and even was mentioned in the State of the Commonwealth.

The legislation, which appears on track to become law, joins other China-related bills this session.

One that’s passed the House would prohibit state agencies from contracting with foreign adversaries. There’s also one to prohibit state employees from using Tiktok and Wechat — Chinese-owned social media platforms — on state-owned devices, which passed the Senate following a tiebreaker cast by Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears. Another would have prohibited public university professors from cooperating with Chinese grants or talent recruitment programs, though it was voted down by a Senate committee.

Sookyung Oh, the director of the Hamkae Center, a community group that lobbies on issues affecting Asian Americans, said the focus on China can heighten fears.

“When we see legislators use consistent anti-China rhetoric, as we are seeing in Virginia, it reinforces racist fears that non-Asians in the U.S. have of Asians,” she said.

Del. Rob Bloxom, who introduced the House version of the agricultural ban legislation, spoke to these anxieties while presenting his bill to a committee.

“Just to be clear, I hope I did not say anything offensive to any people in my comments,” he said. “I think I was trying to be very specific on 'adversarial.’ But just to make that note, if I did, I apologize.”

The USDA listed eight pieces of land in a Freedom of Information Act request for the data. The Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act requires “foreign investors who acquire, transfer, or hold an interest in U.S. agricultural land to report such holdings and transactions to the Secretary of Agriculture.”

About 96% of the land in the AFIDA data is tied to pork-giant Smithfield Foods, which is headquartered in Virginia, but was purchased in 2013 by Hong Kong-based WH Group. Prior to that acquisition, only 501 acres of current landholdings in Virginia were tied to Chinese owners.

WH Group, the company that owns Smithfield, is not a state-owned business.

During legislative hearings, Bloxom said the text should be careful to not catch Smithfield up in the new law.

Bloxom, Stuart and Youngkin have pointed to Virginia’s military and intelligence installations in advocating for the measure.

“This is a security issue more than anything. We have very sensitive assets in Virginia,” Stuart told the Senate. “This is just an abundance of caution to make sure that we don't jeopardize the integrity of those assets.”

Last month, the U.S. Air Force sent a letter to North Dakota’s senators opposing a Chinese proposal to build a corn mill near a base in the state, citing national security concerns.

As of March 2022, 14 states had laws prohibiting or restricting ownership and investments in private farmland by foreigners, according to The University of Arkansas’s National Agricultural Law Center.

That number soon could increase: Youngkin, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott have indicated they would sign bills restricting foreign land ownership in their state.

During a January event for the nonprofit advocacy group Virginia Agribusiness Council, Youngkin said protecting food security and national security were a “top priority.”

“Over the past decade, we have seen the Chinese Communist Party invest in farmland throughout the nation at alarming rates,” he said, according to a transcript of the remarks. “I think we can all agree that this is not something that we want to happen here in Virginia.”

Youngkin also said he decided against recruiting a plant that would’ve manufactured batteries for Ford electric vehicles in cooperation with a Chinese company. On Monday, Ford announced the $3.5 billion factory would be located in Michigan. It could create up to 2,500 jobs.

“The reality is that the technology that, in fact, drives all of that [green energy infrastructure] is owned and dominated by the Chinese,” the governor told reporters after the State of the Commonwealth address in January. “While we recognize that we want to make progress on all of these fronts, we also have to recognize the national security implications of outsourcing all of our technology.”

Youngkin’s campaign team has featured his China remarks from the State of the Commonwealth on social media platforms, prompting speculation that the stance could be a preview of a possible 2024 presidential run. Abbott and DeSantis also have been linked to presidential rumors.

While Youngkin and the sponsors of Virginia’s land-ownership bills are all Republican, the proposals have garnered support from Democrats in the legislature.

Del. Dan Helmer (D-Loudoun) sought to make the House’s version of the agriculture ban even more strict. And on the federal level, Democrats have sought to put more restrictions and regulations around foreign ownership of farmland.

“I know the General Assembly is paying attention to this issue, but the concern expands far beyond Virginia's borders,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger in an interview. The Democrat is a sponsor of the FARM Act, which would add the Secretary of Agriculture to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.

Spanberger said she’s singled out China among the list of foreign adversaries because of its leadership’s investments abroad.

“If they are leveraging their investments throughout Africa, throughout South America and increasingly throughout our own country, that becomes — or has the potential to become — a destabilizing or challenging reality,” she said.

After Canada, China is Virginia’s second largest trade partner. In 2018, $235 million worth of agricultural goods were exported to China.

The Hamkae Center’s Oh pointed to this relationship.

“It just doesn't it doesn't make a whole lot of sense from an economic perspective. It also doesn't make a lot of sense in terms of what kind of message Virginia wants to send to Asian Americans,” she said. “There's this whole question about why are these bills needed. And we have not been able to get a satisfactory response, really, from anyone.”

Jahd Khalil covers Virginia state politics for VPM News.