Some Missouri lawmakers worried that foreign farms would get farming tax credits

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — About 100,000 acres of farmland in Missouri is owned by foreigners and nearly half is owned by a Chinese company, according to the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

Gov. Mike Parson signed two bills into law on Wednesday, one of which extended tax credits for farmers. A concern for some lawmakers as they worked through the legislation during the special session was that some foreign-owned farms and businesses would benefit from the credits.

The governor says he can wait to be addressed when the General Assembly returns in January.

“You kind of have to walk a fine line when calling a special session,” Parson said. “These are things that can be done in the legislative session, but they haven’t done it.”

Of Missouri’s 27.5 million acres of farmland, 99,500 acres are owned by foreigners, or about 0.4 percent. Among the top landowners are China with 42,596 acres, New Zealand with 16,271 acres, Spain with 13,742 acres, Germany with 5,202 acres, Switzerland with 4,507 acres and the Netherlands. Low with 3,004 acres.

“We have to protect our land, we have to protect not only those who are now farming, but also those who will come after us, our children who want to pursue the same professions as us,” said Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, a cattle rancher in southern Missouri.

During the special session to reauthorize tax credits for farmers, Moon and a few other lawmakers proposed excluding foreign ownership from qualifying for the incentives.

“Is there anything we could do to deter them from coming in and taking usable and cultivable land and protecting Missourians who might come after us to take this opportunity for themselves?” asked Moon to the sponsor of the Senate bill, Senator Jason Bean, R-Holcomb.

“I think we will have opportunities in the future where we can do that, we definitely need to look into that,” Bootheel farmer Bean told Moon.

According to the Missouri Department of Agriculture, of China’s 42,000 acres, nearly all is owned by “Murphy Brown of Missouri, LLC” which now owns Smithfield Foods, a major hog operation.

In 2015, lawmakers approved a provision that does not allow buyers of foreign-owned farmland to apply through the Department of Agriculture.

“I don’t know if a campaign is going where I don’t see a mail that’s put on this,” said Sen. Bill Eige, R-Weldon Spring. “I see ads where people are very upset with the idea that countries that may not be very positive towards the United States and Missouri, like China, own land.”

It’s a topic that has gained traction in the current US Senate race between Republican Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Democratic nominee Trudy Busch Valentine. Legislators who are farmers themselves say this needs to be fixed.

“I think we will definitely talk about it in the next session, I know it’s a priority for many of us, to what extent we talk about it, I think we’ll make proposals together and see what makes makes the most sense for Missouri farms,” Bean said.

The bill the governor signed into law on Wednesday includes incentives for meat processing facilities, the transportation of agricultural products and an exemption for certain vehicles from state and local sales and use taxes. It would also create tax credit programs for high-ethanol and biodiesel fuel retailers, in-state biodiesel producers, the establishment or improvement of urban farms, and the creation of the Specialty Agricultural Crops Act.

“It is the position of the Democratic caucus that Missourians and Americans should own farmland here in the state of Missouri,” said Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence.

Legislation to help farmers and rural economic projects barely passed the House, receiving just one more vote than constitutionally required. Parson vetoed nearly the same legislation over the summer because the appropriations only lasted two years instead of six.

Last month during debate in the House, discussion of the bill was interrupted by House leaders, causing many MPs to think twice about their vote. House Bill 3 was then submitted to the House Fiscal Review Committee, which had to approve the sticker price of $40 million. When it looked like the committee wasn’t going to have enough votes to pass it, House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, added two Republicans and a Democrat, who was Merideth, to the committee.

“I have to tell you, these process anomalies give me a lot of alarm bells,” Merideth said. “It makes me really hesitant to support a bill if I have to find out in a year that it’s going to the foreign farms that benefit from it or the elected officials who benefit from it.”

The law officially comes into force in January. After the General Assembly adjourned Tuesday after a special session, the Joint Committee on Agriculture met to discuss other items the $94 billion industry would like to see. These topics include right to repair, broadband, solar farms and land ownership.