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Montana bill addresses security and foreign ownership of land

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Posted at 5:35 PM, Feb 04, 2023

A Miles City legislator has a bill that addresses the potential spying by other countries.

While the bill deals with foreign ownership of land, Montana Sen. Ken Bogner, R-Miles City, says the recent Chinese spy balloon over Montana illustrates the need for the bill.

"This is quite an example of exactly what I'm trying to prevent here with this bill," Bogner said. "We want to prevent these adversarial nations from conducting spying, espionage, having any type of influence that we don't want to see within our borders."

Some were concerned about the Chinese government's presence in Montana even before the spy balloon over Billings this week.

That includes fears that Chinese companies have been purchasing land and are threatening United States food security that has prompted some proposed legislation at the state capitol.

As of the end of 2021, China companies own more than 384,000 acres of agricultural land in the United States., according to the Congressional Research Service.

"I'm less than a half a mile away from a missile site,' said Erik Somerfeld, a Montana Farmers Union board member. "And actually my brother owned the ground around the missile site. There's no way we'd ever sell to somebody like that."

Sommerfeld grows wheat and barley in Power, just north of Great Falls and he's a big supporter of Montana Senate Bill 203, introduced last week.

The goal of the bill is to prohibit foreign adversaries from selling, leasing or renting critical infrastructure in Montana, including land used for agriculture,

"Letting a foreign adversary have control over our food supply is very dangerous," Somerfeld said.

Bogner was partly motivated to draft the legislation after a Chinese food manufacturer, Fufeng Group, bought 370 acres for a corn milling plant, 12 miles from the Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota.

"This really came to my radar from what was happening and just next door in North Dakota, with their military base and having Chinese purchase property right next to there," Bogner said.

In letters to Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., the U.S. Department Of The Air Force stated "The proposed project presents a significant threat to national security."

The Montana bill's backers say there have also been other examples.

In 2013, a Chinese company purchased Smithfield foods, the largest pork producer in the world.

And in Montana, more land has been purchased by foreign companies.

According to the U.S. Department Of Agriculture, private agriculture land in Montana owned by foreigners is up from 843,178 acres and 2020 to more than 916,269 acres in 2021.

That same report shows total foreign ownership of private agriculture land in the U.S. up from 37,595,779 acres in 2020 to 40,031,308 acres in 2021.

"There is pause for concern for many of our members," said Raylee Honeycutt, Montana Stockgrowers Association executive vice-president.

The Montana Stockgrowers Association is one of several agriculture groups that support the bill and Honeycutt says she's worried about food security.

"If you care about the security of our country, if you care about food security, definitely it's something that everyone should be paying attention to," Honeycutt said about the bill.

"We have the U.S. Department of Commerce, telling us there are adversarial nations and to be aware, and that we need to do our part to protect our borders," Bogner said. "And this is how we can do it."

Bogner is the main sponsor of the legislation.

Federal law does not restrict the amount of private agricultural land that can be foreign owned, and no state has an absolute prohibition.

But legislatures in Montana and Wyoming are each considering bills to change that.

"It's making sure the people here in Montana and the U.S. have the highest quality, the safest food and at a reasonable price," Somerfeld said.

As for this bill, it's legislation that was in the works long before the Chinese balloon was spotted, but one that may now have even more support because of it.