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Bill would keep foreign buyers from Alabama farm land, forests

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Alabama has the third-highest amount of foreign-held agricultural land in the U.S. at nearly 1.8 million acres.

That’s a concern to Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, who has pre-filed a bill to restrict purchases of agriculture and forest land in Alabama.

“I think that we're having a problem with foreign countries coming up on our farmland,” Melson told Alabama Daily News. “… We feed the world and we don't need the world coming in and buying up all our farm land. It's just to protect U.S. citizens.”

Melson marijuana (copy)

Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence speaks to reporters on Feb. 17, 2020. Melson has pre-filed a bill to restrict purchases of agriculture and forest land in Alabama.

His Senate Bill 14 says “a nonresident alien, foreign business, or foreign government, or an agent, trustee, or fiduciary thereof, may not purchase or otherwise acquire agricultural land in this state.”

The Alabama Farmers Federation supports Melson’s bill.

“The pandemic has exposed our country’s dependence on foreign nations for essential supplies,” Preston Roberts, ALFA’s agricultural legislation director, told ADN. “It is more critical than ever to secure our ability to produce our nation’s food supply. Sen. Melson’s bill promotes national security and protects hard working Alabamians."

Nationwide, foreign investors held an interest in nearly 35.2 million acres of U.S. forest land and farm land, according to a 2019 U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

That was an increase of nearly 3.4 million acres from 2018 and represented 2.7 percent of all privately held agricultural land in the United States.

Forest land accounted for 49 percent of all reported foreign-held acreage, according to the report. In Alabama, almost all the foreign-owned property is forests.

The report also breaks down foreign ownership by county. Barbour County had the most foreign-owned land, almost 150,000 acres.

Nationwide, Canada holds the most foreign-owned U.S. land, nearly 30 percent. Followed by the Netherlands, Italy, United Kingdom and Germany.

Other states in recent years have moved to put restrictions on who can own their farmland. Meanwhile, the U.S. House-passed fiscal 2022 Agriculture appropriations bill would have required the USDA to take actions to “prohibit the purchase” of agricultural land by “companies owned, in full or in part, by China, Russia, Iran, or North Korea.” The Senate did not take up that language.

While China has a relatively small percentage of agriculture property, most of it is attributed to the 2013 purchase of Smithfield Food by Chinese firm WH Group.

“We can do without a lot of things, but we can’t do without clean water and a food supply,” Melson said.

Melson said he’s also working on a bill to expand country of origin labeling on meats and produce sold in Alabama.

The legislative session starts Jan. 11.