The Agriculture Department has doubled the number of staff tracking foreign land purchases and is taking another look at past transactions after a three-year gap in the department’s imposition of disclosure penalties, Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday.

The department assessed no penalties for Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act violations between 2015 and 2018 due to low staffing levels in the office tasked with enforcing the law, which requires foreign investors to file a form with the Farm Service Agency detailing their land acquisitions and dispositions. 

The gap in enforcement was revealed in an internal USDA memo Agri-Pulse acquired earlier this year, which was the subject of a letter from twenty-eight concerned House members. Vilsack himself called the absence of penalties “unacceptable” in a response letter to the House members, noting that the agency had only “two to three” AFIDA specialists from 2016 to 2020.

During a hearing with the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Thursday, Vilsack told one of the letter’s co-signers, Washington Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse, that there are now six AFIDA specialists at USDA headquarters and the agency is considering retroactively enforcing penalties that may have occurred during the lapse.

“We have the power to do that,” Vilsack said. “We’ve doubled the workforce focused on this issue with the express purpose of taking a look at where we might be able to assess those penalties.”

Foreign farmland purchases have become an increasing concern among lawmakers this year. On Thursday, the House voted 407-26 to adopt an amendment to a GOP energy bill to bar the Chinese Communist Party from buying U.S. land for agriculture or renewable energy production. The vote was largely symbolic, since the energy bill has no chance of becoming law. 

USDA assessed just eight penalties for AFIDA violations between 2012 and 2022, while seeing the number of filings sharply increase during the same time period. There were forms for 911 parcels of land submitted in 2012 and 6,363 in 2021.

Foreign investors owned around 40 million acres of U.S. agricultural land in 2021, according to the department’s most recent AFIDA report. This represents around 3.1 percent of all privately held agricultural and 1.8 percent of all land in the United States.

The effectiveness of the current reporting law and the USDA’s efforts to track purchases have been increasingly questioned by lawmakers, however. Congress passed language in last year’s appropriations bill requiring the agency to establish an online database containing AFIDA data and allowing it to accept disclosure submissions digitally. The USDA previously relied on a paper-based system, according to FSA administrator Zach Ducheneaux.

“We’re hoping to get better data, because better data allows you to make better decisions,”  Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan, who helped champion the measure, told Agri-Pulse.

The USDA requested $1 million from Congress in Fiscal Year 2024 to design the new database. The agency also asked for an increase of over $17 million in the salaries and expenses account for the Farm Production and Conservation Business Center, which is the branch where AFIDA employees are housed.

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Vilsack said in his letter that USDA has little power in investigating AFIDA beyond assessing penalties for late or erroneous filings, since it does not have a role in reviewing purchases of U.S. agricultural land. Agency officials previously told Agri-Pulse that most of the companies found in violation of the law turned themselves in and acknowledged that some transactions likely go unreported.

Vilsack told reporters after the hearing that if people were concerned about the issue of land ownership, they needed to “get serious” about looking at potential solutions. He suggested, somewhat sarcastically, the creation of a “clearinghouse” containing land deeds from every county recorder’s office that the USDA could use to track purchases. He said farmers would likely oppose the idea. 

“Set aside the politics,” Vilsack said. “If this is a real problem, then let’s talk about what a solution would be. And are we willing to accept that solution?”

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