James Rainwater might not be a household name in Minnesota politics.
But on Tuesday morning at a forum discussion for congressional candidates in southern Minnesota, the attorney corralled the attention of farmers in the open-air shed at Farmfest in Redwood County.
“I hear stories of Bill Gates buying up hundreds of thousands of acres for corporate farms,” said Rainwater of Lake City. “I think the little guy needs some help.”
It’s been a summer of unease in farm country, with a flurry of national reports about Chinese investors and eco-minded billionaires buying up U.S. agricultural lands and gaining control over agribusiness ventures.
In both cases, the nation has looked to North Dakota.
Earlier this year, a Grand Forks fracas erupted after a Chinese-backed investment firm purchased 300 acres of land within 20 minutes of an Air Force base. The subsequent corn mill the group hopes to develop — still pending approval — has drawn intense scrutiny over national security concerns.
Also this summer, in an unrelated action, North Dakota’s attorney general approved the sale of parcels of land in Pembina and Walsh counties to Red River Trust, a Washington-based entity with ties to the tech billionaire Gates.
In Minnesota, only 1.6% of the state’s farmland is owned by foreign entities, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture report. The state’s laws against foreign and corporate ownership of farms keep the state relatively secure from interloping buyers. Only citizens, permanent residents or entities with less than 20% foreign investment can own Minnesota farmland.
“The vast majority — 70 to 80 percent — of farmland is sold to neighboring farmers,” said Glen Fladeboe, of Fladeboe Land, a brokerage specializing in the sale of Minnesota farmland.
Doug Spanier, an attorney with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said other than exemptions for timber and wind-energy easements on ag land, state law ensures farmland remains controlled mostly by either farmers or their landlords.
“The Midwest states all have some sort of law preventing corporate farms,” Spanier said. “And no foreign citizen can own farmland unless they’ve been lawfully admitted to the United States for permanent residence.”
Still, both the cases in North Dakota could, feasibly, happen in Minnesota. It’s not against state law for a foreign investor to own a milling plant. And Gates’ Red River Trust has announced plans to lease the purchased land back to farmers, which might allay concerns about corporate farming, as it did in the North Dakota AG’s perspective.