POLITICO: Tester wants a crackdown on China farmland buys

by Garrett Downs, Meredith Lee Hill and Marcia Brown


— After a Chinese spy balloon traversed the U.S., calls are growing on Capitol Hill to crack down on foreign land ownership in the U.S. MA spoke with Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) about his new legislation to ban U.S. adversaries from buying American farmland.

— MEET THE MAJORITY: MA caught up with two new House Ag Republicans, Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.) and John Duarte (R-Calif.), for a look at some of their farm bill priorities.

— The first Ag Department conservation spending from the Inflation Reduction Act is on the move. USDA is announcing nearly $1 billion in funding opportunities for ag conservation programs this year as lawmakers opine over tinkering with the funding in the 2023 farm bill.

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CHINA-AG LAND DEBATE: MA spoke with Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), the only working farmer in the Senate, about his new legislation to ban U.S. adversaries from buying American farmland — that includes Chinese, Iranian, North Korean and Russian business entities.

As we’ve reported, the push on Capitol Hill for the federal government to crackdown on Chinese and other foreign entities buying U.S. farmland, sometimes close to military installations, is reaching a fever pitch. The Air Force recently said that a proposed Chinese grain facility close to its base near Grand Forks, N.D., presented national security concerns.

The debate, Tester noted, has grown even hotter after a Chinese spy balloon recently traversed the U.S. before being shot down, and as the U.S. is reevaluating its relationship with Beijing and Chinese investment.

Tester, who is up for reelection in 2024 in a red state, and Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), just introduced their Promoting Agriculture Safeguards and Security Act — with Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y) and House Ag members Jim Costa (D-Calif.) and Rick Crawford (R-Ark.).

Here’s part of Meredith’s conversation with Tester.

Q: Tell us more about the PASS Act and how you see the issue of foreign land ownership impacting Montana.

Tester: I think it needs to be divided up into adversarial countries who own farmland, and other folks. I think this bill is really [focused] on China and Russia and North Korea, Iran. And, quite honestly, I think it is inappropriate for any four of those countries to buy or have ownership of land in this country. I think it puts security and national security at risk. And that’s really what this bill is focused at. It’s focused at ag land, it’s also focused at agribusiness.

And I think the [Chinese spy balloon], it just added to this. This hasn’t been around since last week. It’s been around for a long time. And quite honestly, it’s something that I heard.

I did a series of farm listening sessions the second week in January. It is something I heard there and got together with [Sen. Mike] Rounds and we dropped this bill in.

But the bottom line is this is about making sure we keep America the greatest country in the world economically and militarily. And if you’ve got China that owns farmland, particularly in key places of this country, it’s a real problem.

Q: Some of your other colleagues have cited concerns about personal property rights and federalizing this issue. Why do you think federal law is important here and how does this legislation in particular navigate around personal property rights? 

Tester: Number one, I think it’s important because we have an organization that could actually enforce this, called the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, otherwise known as CFIUS. That’s why I think it’s a federal issue.

The other question was private property rights, which I am absolutely, unequivocally 100 percent a private property rights guy. And I think you need to have a willing buyer and willing seller, with one exception. And that exception is whether these people are part of the Chinese Communist Party that want to do us harm, or North Korea, who want to see us go away, or Russia, and I talk about them, or Iran. Other than that, go.

Somebody asked me a question today — they said the farmland, it’ll be worth a lot less. No it won’t. And if they’re offered exorbitant figures, there’s probably a national security issue that they’re doing that for. I think we’re all Americans and this is the greatest country in the world. And I think this is just the right policy.

Q: What is the scope of people who should be scrutinized or banned from buying U.S. farmland from adversarial countries? What does that look like to you? 

Tester: Any company that does business in China, any Chinese company is part of the Chinese Communist Party. It’s just the way it is. So it makes it pretty easy.

Q: So Chinese firms is your thinking?

Tester: Yeah that’s right. Because, it’s no different than TikTok. I mean, they’re doing business with the government.

Q: The House Ag Chair has lamented this becoming a pretty hot cable news issue. He’s obviously digging into it, but he’s a little concerned about some of the talking points, especially among his Republicans who maybe aren’t very steeped in ag policy. I’m just wondering your thoughts about that.

Tester: So I don’t know what he said. And look, I know for a fact that there’s a lot of folks that don’t understand rural America around here and don’t understand production agriculture. But I can also tell you that I still farm, I’m still involved in production agriculture. It’s what I’ve done for my whole life and I mean literally my whole life.

And I can tell you that, I didn’t hear his comments so I don’t know what he said, but the truth is that I want to make sure agriculture continues. I want to make sure private property rights are protected. But look, I also want to make sure this country remains the world’s biggest economic driver and we continue to lead the world as a military power. And I just think that this bill helps ensure that.

Now, I will tell you, there were things that people said about the [Chinese spy balloon] that totally blew it out of shape from a political standpoint, and [they] weren’t dealing with it from a national security standpoint. And if that’s the angle he’s going, I agree with that. This is about national security. This is about making sure that we can maintain our position in the world. Nothing more, nothing less.


HOUSE AG GOP VIEW: MA caught up with two new House Ag Republicans, Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.) and John Duarte (R-Calif.), for a look at some of their farm bill priorities.

Like Tester, Molinaro also wants to crack down on foreign ownership of U.S. farmland. He told MA he’s also eager to cut regulation, bolster supply chains and open up markets to help protect small family farms in his New York district.

“The challenge for small family farms is that they are quasi-family operation, quasi-business,” Molinaro said. “So bureaucracy, red tape and navigating economic challenges is that much more complex. That shouldn’t mean that they are left to fend for themselves.”

Local foods: Molinaro said that includes getting New York government entities and businesses to purchase more locally produced foods. He said he also plans to encourage New York Mayor Eric Adams to allow the New York City government and schools to buy whole milk.

Trade: Molinaro said his district would benefit from better access to Canadian markets. The Biden administration is locked in an ongoing trade dispute with Canadian officials over subsidies it provides for its dairy and other ag sectors — which have been a detriment to U.S. exporters.

“What that looks like, I guess, it’s entirely up to the administration, but we’ll continue to advocate,” Molinaro said.

Nutrition programs: Molinaro said he and his mom “would not have survived were it not for food stamps and subsidized lunch in school.” He was the Dutchess County Executive in New York before his successful run for Congress in 2022.

“Fast forward 30 years and I became the chief executive officer of that very same department of social services,” Molinaro said. “I know the inefficiencies. I know the red tape, I know the waste, fraud and abuse. I also know the benefit and navigating that world as carefully as possible is important.”

Debt limit fight: Molinaro declined to say if he would support adding new work requirements to federal food assistance, should it become a GOP demand in the debt limit battle as some of his colleagues are suggesting.

“There will be a lot of negotiation and there’ll be new priorities every day,” Molinaro said. “Let’s see where all these fall. But I come to the table with an appreciation for being responsible and conservative with spending.”

Rep. John Duarte (R-Calif.) is aiming to get more farmers on crop insurance, including specialty crop producers. Duarte says crop insurance and “regulatory relief” are among his top farm bill targets.

Crop insurance: Duarte, whose district has been hit by the recent flooding and storms in California, wants to ensure the farm bill helps the federal government move away from ad hoc disaster assistance for farmers by instead creating a “more comprehensive” crop insurance program. That could include lifting income caps for some of that assistance given the high costs of farming in California, he said.

Duarte also said he wants to make sure the crop insurance program doesn’t turn into “a vehicle for the ESG agenda to drift into,” referencing possible climate and sustainability regulations from the federal government.

Nutrition: Duarte said he believes nutrition programs of the farm bill, especially for children, are “incredibly important.” He said the goal for lawmakers is to keep food assistance programs “accountable” and ensure that when Congress passes legislation to support those programs, that “we can be sure that that is how the programs are defined and operate.”

“As we go to the next farm bill, we’ve got to at least presume that there’s normalcy returning,” Duarte said, referring to the need to wind down some of the emergency pandemic-era programs.

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SHOW ME THE IRA MONEY: $850 million from the IRA is headed out the door in fiscal year 2023 for USDA’s conservation programs, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack is expected to announce later today. Speaking at the annual meeting for the National Association of Conservation Districts in New Orleans, Vilsack will outline how USDA is planning to help producers face climate change.

Funding levels will rapidly increase over the next four years, a USDA spokesperson said.

Refresh: As MA readers will remember, the nearly $20 billion from the IRA for conservation programs will be divided among several oversubscribed programs:

-$8.45B for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program

-$4.95B for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program

-$3.25B for the Conservation Stewardship Program

-$1.4B for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program

USDA also plans to work smarter, not just harder: With IRA funding, the agency is implementing a measuring and monitoring program through the department’s conservation arm to better verify successes and target funding for environmental and climate initiatives.

One billion dollars from the IRA will also be spread out over the life of the bill for technical assistance.

Looming scrutiny: Expect the GOP to watch closely how USDA rolls out IRA funds. Republicans are eager to repurpose some of the massive $20 billion infusion into the farm bill’s conservation title into other priorities, like the safety net — arguing USDA will not be able to spend the conservation money quickly enough.

But Robert Bonnie, the undersecretary for farm production and conservation at USDA, last week told MA after a hearing that the department is capable of moving the funds.

“I think it’s vitally important that those dollars stay in the conservation programs for climate,” Bonnie said. “We’re very confident in our ability to move those resources this year and to commit the dollars this year.”

Water woes: Later today, Vilsack will also unveil the department’s new interagency plan to assist farmers and ranchers to conserve water and navigate crippling drought — WaterSMART. In collaboration with the Department of Interior, the NRCS will direct the $25 million IRA funds to 40 areas in the West. According to USDA, these efforts overlap neatly with the department’s climate-smart agriculture and forestry programs.


 FIRST IN MA: Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) and Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) plan to reintroduce a bill to shelter farmers from having to report their emissions under a proposed Securities and Exchange Commission rule. Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) is also expected to reintroduce a companion bill. “The SEC’s efforts to use financial regulation to implement a climate agenda would hinder the ability of American farmers and ranchers to compete in global markets,” Lucas told MA.

— The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union,  which represents more than a million members from meat processing workers to grocery clerks, wants Congress to ratchet up labor protections in the 2023 farm bill. Pros can read Marcia’s Q&A with UFCW President Marc Perrone on the union’s farm bill priorities, which they shared with MA.

 U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been hard at work inspecting flowers before Valentine’s Day. The department said it has lovingly inspected 1.15 billion cut flowers for contaminants, pests and diseases this season.

THAT’S ALL FOR MA. Drop us a line: gdowns@politico.commeredithlee@politico.commarciabrown@politico.comabehsudi@politico.com and ecadei@politico.com.

Tester wants a crackdown on China farmland buys – POLITICO