Foreign ownership of Montana’s ag land has increased, but remains low

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Farmland represents a primary store of wealth in rural economies and accounts for the majority of US farm sector assets. At both national and more localized levels, there has been a recent uptick in concern over foreign ownership of domestic assets, with particular emphasis on farmland.

A recent undergraduate research project by Montana State University economics student Benjamin Moscona-Remnitz, considers the trends and patterns in foreign agricultural land ownership in Montana. Below is an excerpt from that research, more can be found at AgEconMT.com

Foreign-owned agricultural acreage has risen substantially over the past two decades, but still accounts for a very small share of total US farmland. As of the end of 2018, there are 31.6 million acres of foreign-held farmland and forestland in the US, accounting for approximately 3.5% of all US farmland. Note that this is also likely an overestimate of the percentage of farmland owned by foreign entities, since most forestland is not found in farms.

In Montana, 697,590 acres (1.2%) of land is owned by foreign entities, indicating that foreign ownership of agricultural land is relatively less common here than in the broader US.

 

Figure 1. Cumulative foreign-owned acreage in Montana by land use, 1978-2018

 

Figure 1 displays cumulative foreign-owned acreage in Montana over the 1978-2018 period. In Montana, pasture/range is clearly the dominant type of land purchased by foreign interests, with cropland also occupying a non-trivial share of total foreign-owned land. Montana’s foreign-held pasture/range lands make up a significant portion of US foreign-owned pasture/range acreage (~8%).

 

Figure 2. Proportion of foreign-owned agricultural acreage by county, 2017

 

Figure 2 shows the county-level proportion of agricultural acreage under foreign ownership. Grey counties have no records of foreign ownership in the AFIDA dataset. Glacier County has the highest proportion of foreign agricultural ownership in Montana, at 6.40%, followed by Wheatland (5.84%), Rosebud (5.32%), Flathead (4.29%) and Granite (3.55%). If we look at total foreign-owned acreage by county, Rosebud County is the largest (145,233 ac), followed by Glacier (71,898 ac), Big Horn (61,693 ac), Wheatland (50,277 ac), and Garfield (37,078 ac).

 

Table 1. Agricultural land ownership by foreign nation, Montana, 2018

 

So, who actually owns foreign-held agricultural land in Montana? Table 1 shows the top 10 foreign nations invested in Montana agricultural land.

There are various reasons behind why foreign investors may be interested in US farmland. In the Midwest, for example, a significant proportion of foreign investment over the past twenty years has gone to the development of wind and solar farms. Previous research has also shown that outside investment in farmland tends to rise when the broader economy goes sour. However, the fact remains that, even after a rapid rise in foreign ownership in recent decades, relatively little farmland is owned by non-domestic entities.

 

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MSU Ag Econ Department


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