An Arkansas bill filed this week would ban citizens and entities from China, Iran, North Korea or Russia from buying land in Arkansas. It’s yet another example of Arkansas Republicans potentially causing real damage while fighting phantom menaces.
House Bill 1255, sponsored freshman Rep. Wade Andrews (R-Camden), is modeled on a bill recently filed in Texas and likely inspired by rhetoric from the likes of U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, who introduced a bill last year with fellow Arkansas-native Sen. Tommy Tubberville (R-Alabama), which would ban members of the Chinese Communist Party or those acting on their behalf from purchasing land in the U.S.
There’s a legit policy conversation we could have over foreign ownership of agricultural land. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, foreign individuals and entities owned approximately 40 million acres, or 3.1%, of U.S. agriculture land in 2021. In Arkansas, 5% of the state’s agricultural land is foreign-held.
But guess where the primary foreign investors in Arkansas farmland come from? The Netherlands followed by Canada. Dutch and Canadian timber companies are almost certainly the big owners in Arkansas. In the U.S., Canadian investors account for 31% of foreign-owned farmland, followed by those from the Netherlands at 12% and Italy at 7%. Nationally, China held 383,935 acres, or less than 1% of foreign held acres in the U.S. By comparison, investors from the Netherlands own 412,246 acres in Arkansas alone.
In the 2021 Arkansas General Assembly, Sen. Blake Johnson (R-Corning) introduced a bill that would have prohibited foreign entities from owning more than 5 acres of agriculture land, excluding forest land, but it was amended to simply require foreigners to report land purchases to the USDA and state Department of Agriculture or face a financial penalty.
But HB1255 goes much farther than Johnson’s bill would have. It would prevent Chinese companies from investing in Arkansas, which has been a significant focus of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission in recent years. The AEDC had a satellite office in Shanghai from 2008-2019.
The Chinese company TY Garments has invested $30 million in its factory at the Little Rock Port. There are significant Chinese-owned companies in Jonesboro, Helena-West Helena, Danville and elsewhere.
Some of the announced deals with Chinese investors have gone sideways, most notably the proposed $1.8 billion* Shandong Sun Paper pulp mill in Gum Springs, which was announced in 2016 and canceled in 2020. Another big project, a $410 million textile plant planned for Forrest City and announced in 2017 still hasn’t materialized.
There are no Russian, Iranian or, obviously, North Korean companies who own land in Arkansas.
But there are undoubtedly a lot of resident aliens or people with dual citizenship, who aren’t clearly exempted from this bill, who live in Arkansas and who, if this bill became law, couldn’t buy property. So, for instance, an Iranian doctor working for UAMS or a Chinese scientist employed by the National Center for Toxicological Research in Jefferson County couldn’t buy a house.
*A previous version of this post erroneously said the Shandong paper plant that never happened was a $1.8 million project, rather than a $1.8 billion one.