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Louisiana House sends farmland protection bill to Edwards after unanimous vote

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(The Center Square) — Legislation to ban foreign adversaries from owning or buying agricultural lands in Louisiana is heading to Gov. John Bel Edwards after the House gave final approval on Thursday.

House members voted 89-0 to concur with changes in the Senate to House Bill 125, sponsored by Rep. Michael Echols, R-Monroe, to prohibit foreign adversaries from directly or indirectly owning, acquiring, leasing, or otherwise obtaining any interest in Louisiana agricultural lands.

The legislation ties the definition of foreign adversaries to individuals or governments listed in federal regulations that currently include China, Cuba, Iran, Korea, Russia, and Venezuela.

“This bill is really centered around foreign adversaries who are coming to Louisiana, acquiring agricultural lands, acquiring lands near our military bases, and this is imposing more of a national security threat than we have seen in many decades,” Echols told a House committee earlier this session.

Analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture data by the Louisiana State University AgCenter last year showed 1.4 million acres, or about 18% of the state’s total farmland was under foreign ownership in 2019, the last year of available data.

The total represented an increase of 277,706 acres since 2015, with the majority of holdings in Vernon, LaSalle and Beauregard parishes. Over 88% of all foreign-owned land in Louisiana is in forestry production, and about 8% in crop production, with entities with the largest holdings from Canada, the Netherlands, and the Cayman Islands, according to the analysis.

“One of the big issues is we simply don’t know how much land China and other adversaries may own because it’s tied up in multiple layers,” Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain testified in committee. “One of the things we’re worried about is … they buy up all our ag land and take it out of food production and put it into something else. Because foreign adversaries do not have our best interests in mind at all.”

At least 17 states currently prohibit or restrict foreign adversaries from owning farmland, including Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. Mississippi’s law creates a study commission that will investigate a possible ban on foreign government ownership of farmland in the state.

HB 125 is similar to House Bill 537, sponsored by Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, that bans foreign adversaries from buying, leasing or acquiring any immovable land in Louisiana after Aug. 1.

Hodges pointed to data from the USDA that found China’s ownership of U.S. farmland grew 20-fold in the last decade, from 81 million to 1.8 billion worth of holdings in 2020.

HB 537 cleared the Senate with amendments on a vote of 26-12 on Monday and the House concurred with the changes with a vote of 73-26 on Wednesday, sending the measure to Edwards.

The Louisiana bills worked through the legislature as both chambers of Congress are considering similar legislation focused on lands near military bases.

The Protecting Military Installations and Ranges Act introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX, would block land purchases by foreign adversaries within 100 miles of military installations, which comes in response to Chinese-owned wind farms disrupting military training routes his state.

U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-TX, also introduced the “Protecting Military Installations from Foreign Espionage Act” in the House, citing the same concerns as Cruz.

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