Young Farmers Say Foreign Developers Buying Up U.S. Land as They Can't Pay Student Loan Debt

Young farmers across the U.S. say foreign developers are buying up more land and infrastructure as they struggle to acquire loans and pay off student loan debts which may force them out of the American agriculture industry altogether.

Foreign developers from Canada, China and Germany have been buying up U.S. farmland, grain elevators and other agricultural properties for years, including a 2013 purchase from Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods for 146,000 acres of prime U.S. farmland. But now, as a massive generational transition is set to take place in the American farming industry, young would-be farmers say it's nearly "impossible" for them to own their own land. Nearly 80 percent of farmers under 35 years old have college degrees, and many say crushing student loan debt has given foreign businesses the opportunity to take over.

"If we don't have farmers ready, the land is gonna go to development or to foreign ownership or to consolidation, and those are the three main fears," said Vanessa Garcia Polanco, a policy associate with the National Young Farmers Coalition told the Kansas City, Missouri–based NPR station Monday.

In an industry where land ownership is the primary form of job security, young American farmers say they struggle with short leases and an inability to secure property loans. "Young people's access to land is not easy," a representative for the American Farmland Trust told Newsweek Monday.

Angela Huffman, a sixth-generation farmer in Wyandot County, Ohio, told NPR in 2019 that several massive Chinese purchases could have been prevented by state restrictions on foreign investment. Minnesota and Iowa state lawmakers have since passed such bills. "Right out my back door here, Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the world, has recently bought out a couple grain elevators," Huffman said, pointing across the field behind her Ohio farm home.

"The money that those elevators used to make stayed within the community. Today the money those elevators make will go into the pocket of someone thousands of thousands of miles away. This is going on across America," added Joe Maxwell, co-founder of the Family Farm Action Alliance and a fourth-generation farmer from Missouri.

Tens-of-thousands of dollars of student loan debt is increasingly blocking access to land and capital for both first-generation farming entrepreneurs and younger members of legacy families across the Midwest. Several of America's next generation of farmers told KCUR-FM Monday that skyrocketing foreign investment is pushing them out.

"For a student of color, any [student loan debt] number is a hurdle because that will prevent you from building wealth and having access to the things that degree will open up for you," said Iowa farmer Cait Caughey, detailing her struggle with $60,000 of college debt. "I know of younger farmers that have had longer leases, and those leases ended."

"It's just there's no way," she said of paying $20,000 for two acres of total farmland to live and work on. "Where can any of us come up with that kind of money, right?"

The National Young Farmers Coalition and the American Farmland Trust groups estimate the average American farmer is 60 to 65 years old and approaching retirement. A 2019 report from the AFT found the ownership of 40 percent of U.S. agricultural land will be changing hands over the coming 15 years, "putting both family farmers and the land they steward at risk. Meanwhile, would-be farmers often can't afford to enter the field."

More than 30 million acres of U.S. farmland is held by foreign investors, a number which doubled since 2000, farmland protection groups estimate. U.S. agriculture records show that Canadian investors own the most American farmland, followed by German and Chinese developers.

But John Trimmer, an Ohio farmer, said the problem is not student loan debt—it's that younger generations of legacy farming families have no interest in taking over the business.

"The last two farms we bought here, through an owner, her and her brothers and sisters inherited it from their mother, and none of them wanted to farm. None of them have an interest in the farm."

young american farmers student debt
Young farmers prepare their cows while they wait for judging to begin at the Iowa County Fair on July 12, 2018 in Marengo, Iowa. Several of America's next generation of farmers told KCUR-FM Monday that skyrocketing foreign investment is pushing them out. SCOTT OLSON / Stringer/Getty Images