Foreign investment in US land on the rise

Timber source: A bull moose crosses a logging road near Kokadjo, Maine, on the eastern side of Moosehead Lake. (2001 photo by Robert F. Bukaty, AP)
USA Today | 25.7.2012

Foreign investment in U.S. land on the rise

By Chuck Raasch, USA TODAY

Foreign holdings in U.S. forests and farmland rose by 6.7% in the last 10 months of 2010, encompassing an area roughly the size of Indiana, according to a new report by the Department of Agriculture.

The report, containing the most recent data available, shows that investors from Canada and the Netherlands have almost half of all foreign forest and farmland holdings in the USA. The Canadian holdings reflect heavy investment by timber companies, while the Dutch holdings reflect pension fund investments and long-term agricultural connections in the USA. The report covers 10 months, because the USDA is converting from March-to-February to calendar-year reports on foreign investments starting in 2011.

More than half of foreign land holdings are in timber, much of it concentrated in Maine, where roughly 16% of privately owned land has foreign owners or leasers, almost twice that of any other state, the USDA said.

Maine's foreign holdings grew by about 232,000 acres in 2010, the USDA reported. Maine embraces the investments as partly a function of its geography. Jeanne Curran, director of communications for the Maine Conservation Department, notes that Maine juts into Canada and shares extensive borders on three sides.

Maine's largest private landowner is Canadian timber company Irving Woodlands, with 1.2 million acres, according to the Maine Forest Service.

"We don't focus on where someone is from, in state or out of state," said Maine State Forester Douglas Denico. "We look at how they treat the forest."

Nationally, about 24.2 million acres of privately held farm and forest land were owned or leased by companies with foreign investors, up more than 1.5 million acres in the last 10 months of 2010, the report says. The total is up more than 65% since 2004. The growth in 2010 came after a relatively flat period during a global economic slowdown in 2008 and 2009. Nationally, about 1.9% of all privately held agricultural land has foreign owners or leasers, the USDA said.

The USDA's report includes any property owners or those holding a lease of more than 10 years. Companies or investors that have at least 10% foreign involvement are required to report their activities within 90 days of purchase or lease.

Washington state saw a gain of 388,000 acres of foreign investment in land for wind farms. Tim Stearns, a senior energy policy specialist for Washington's State Energy Office, said wind companies often lease large blocks of land to develop wind farms, but the land also often remains in agricultural production or serves as wildlife habitat.

Ten states, mostly farm states in the Midwest, restrict foreign land ownership, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Maine and Hawaii are not among them. About 8.8% of the private land in Hawaii was held by foreigners in 2010, much of it pasture for cattle.

The Dutch, with about 16 million people, have a relatively oversize investment in the U.S. compared with more populated nations.

Stephen Raes, economic minister in the Netherlands embassy in Washington, D.C., said that longtime trade and economic ties between the United States and the Netherlands account for the high level of land investment. He pointed to his government's study, which showed the Dutch were overall the third-largest foreign investor in all U.S. businesses and that trade with and investment between the two countries accounted for about 625,000 U.S. jobs.

Raes said the investment philosophy of the Dutch pension system, which is 130% the size of the country's gross domestic product, the largest in the world relative to the size of the economy, might explain much of his country's investment in U.S. land. Raes said the pension fund is a "very active but also at the same time, very conservative" entity that favors real estate and bonds.

Raes also said there has been a strong tradition of Dutch investment in the U.S. since his country helped finance the Louisiana Purchase during Thomas Jefferson's presidency. Raes also said there was strong 19th-century settlement of Dutch farmers in Texas, Kansas and California, and that could account for continued interest in U.S. farmland.

"There is indeed this long-term, strong relationship (between the U.S. and the Netherlands), which is remarkable for a country that is one-third the size of Ohio," Raes said.
Original source: USA Today

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