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JEFFERSON CITY — Family farmers packed a House hearing room to testify in favor of two bills banning foreign ownership of agricultural land, at one point unspooling three rolls of signatures on a petition supporting the bill across the hearing room and out the door.

The bills would reverse the legislature’s 2013 move to allow up to 1 percent of Missouri’s agricultural land to be foreign-owned. Foreign companies and individuals would be allowed to keep their land, but would not be able to sell to another foreign entity.

The identical bills were heard in the House Economic Development Committee on Tuesday morning, where bill sponsors Rep. Martha Stevens, D-Columbia, and Rep. Tom Hurst, R-Meta, said the change was needed to protect food security and national security.

Those who spoke for the bill emphasized the values of family farmers and the deep connections that make them stewards of their land and communities. Foreign-owned companies don’t care about the community because they are so far removed from it, they argued.

Putnam County farmer Terry Spence said he drove more than 170 miles Tuesday morning to be in Jefferson City for the 8 a.m. hearing. He said there’s a Chinese-owned hog farm within eyesight of his farm, and he worries it will be harder to hold a foreign company accountable for what they do with the land. He said family farming is a heritage and one farmers are proud of.

“I would hate to see what our forefathers would think of us brokering our American soil off to foreign countries,” Spence said. “Something that we live for and work for and take pride in.”

Callaway County farmer Jeff Jones said foreign companies don’t have the same interests and values as the people living in agricultural communities. Giving up control of the U.S. food supply to those foreign companies is not going to help us, he said.

“As a traditional family farmer, we raise food to help others,” Jones said. “And as these foreign investors take over our food supply, they’re gonna use this as leverage against us and as power to enable their country to do more.”

In 1965, the legislature allowed foreign individuals and companies to own land in Missouri, reversing a ban passed in 1895.

Royal Dutch Shell and some American companies leased huge tracts of land in Vernon County in the early 1960s, trying to find a way to pull out the heavy oil around Nevada.

The legislature’s repeal of the ban set Shell up to buy land and start a western-Missouri oil boom, but the company couldn’t find an economical way to recover the oil.

Foreign land ownership increased across the Midwest in the 1970s. In 1978, the legislature banned foreign ownership of Missouri farmland again, following a Minnesota ban a year earlier.

Missouri’s ban stood until 2013, when the legislature loosened the rule a week before Chinese meat-processing conglomerate Shuanghui International Holdings bought Smithfield Foods for $4.7 billion. Shuanghui is now known as WH Group.

Then-Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the bill, a broad-ranging agriculture package with a provision to allow foreign ownership of up to 1 percent of Missouri’s agricultural land. His veto was overridden by the legislature, and Shuanghui officially acquired Smithfield and its 40,000-plus acres of Missouri hog farms.

Smithfield lobbyist Jewell Patek said the 2013 law had “zero to do” with the Shuanghui purchase, and the law was meant to attract New Zealand dairy farmers. He said “nothing’s changed” since 2013 for the 3,000 Smithfield employees, who Patek said are mostly family farmers.

He noted that corporations, foreign or domestic, are already heavily restricted from farming, except in certain counties in northwest Missouri, including Sullivan, Putnam and Mercer. Patek agreed that family farming was on the decline, but he said that there were factors aside from Chinese-owned farmland.

“I’m trying to raise my two daughters to be farmers, and there aren’t many people doing that,” Patek said. “So unfortunately, as you have fewer people raising their kids to be farmers, you’re going to have fewer farmers.”

He said he has farmers in his family who have blamed the weather, corporations, foreign countries and trade on the decrease in family farming.

“Consolidation in almost every field has increased since the Industrial Revolution,” he said, “and I don’t think agriculture is exempt from those market forces.”

Pettis County farmer Dan Tevis said the bill was timely. He said he’s concerned President Donald Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum will drive the U.S. into a trade war with China, where Missouri pork would be the “number one weapon.”

“This pork could be easily shipped out of Missouri to somewhere overseas, causing us to have a meat shortage, drive up our pork prices and ultimately leave us in a place of food insecurity,” he said.

Hurst said China has been buying up agricultural land in Australia. He said he’s heard people say that China is trying to take over the U.S. “not by firing rifles, but by buying us out.”

“There can be the conspiracy theory,” Hurst said. “The only thing is, what’s to keep them from coming over here, bringing the fertilizer, the chemicals, the seed; they bring the workers and the equipment; they make the product here, which is our ground growing it, and taking it back and basically paying no tax other than the tax on the ground?”

Farmer and former state Sen. Wes Shoemyer, testifying in support of the bill, said Chinese companies would hollow out American farming like it did with manufacturing.

“If you believe that you’ve seen the hollowing out of rural Missouri through the manufacturing sector, China’s five-year plan is to simply have the pork raised here, killed here, shipped to China, further processed and then shipped back,” Shoemyer said.

Supervising editor is Mark Horvit:

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