Between 2004 and 2014, the amount of agricultural land in Oklahoma that came under foreign control increased nearly sixfold, from 62,325 acres to 371,576 acres, according to the latest federal data available.
But unlike in many other states, much of that acreage was in the form of long-term leases held by wind energy companies, which prefer to lease rather than purchase land for their turbines and other infrastructure.
Of the total foreign acreage, about 83 percent, or more than 307,000 acres, was leased long-term by foreign interests, according to an analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture data by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. The leased land is valued at $247.1 million.
“There’s very little (foreign-owned farmland) for the most part,” Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture Jim Reese said. “It’s against the law.”
Oklahoma does not ban foreign ownership of agricultural land outright, but its laws about foreign ownership are among the strictest in the country. Oklahoma law states that non-U.S. citizens cannot acquire or own land, and if they acquire it “by devise or descent,” they have to dispose of it within five years. Corporations can’t buy, acquire, deal or trade in real estate unless it is in incorporated cities and towns.
Oklahoma law also bans foreign corporations from engaging in or owning or leasing farming or ranching operations.
Reese said many of the wind-power leases are similar to leases held by oil companies, but oil-related leases aren’t counted as foreign-held agricultural land because of their short terms.
“Oil leases are for two to three years, but if they are producing oil wells, those leases are continuing,” Reese said. “I think oil leases of over 10 years should be counted, if you’re going to count wind farms.”
Companies based in Italy, Portugal, Spain and France have been the biggest foreign investors in Oklahoma’s agricultural land, the data shows. These countries are home to some of the biggest wind energy companies in the world.
About $183 million in wind leases in Oklahoma has come from Italy, home to Enel, a company partially owned by the Italian government. About $37 million in leases has come from Portugal, where EDP Renewables is based. More than $11 million in investments came from France, where Electricite de France, or EDF, is headquartered. The majority of the company is owned by the French government.
Spain, with a $25 million total, is home to Acciona Energy. However, it appears the investment may be overvalued because of data entry errors in the U.S. Department of Agriculture database.
The data covers from 1900 to 2014 and is collected under the Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act, a federal law requiring foreign owners to disclose any purchase, sale or lease of American agriculture land.
The database is a strong indicator of the quantity of land being sold to foreign interests, although the data contains errors and is incomplete.
The data tracks purchases of agricultural land by foreign companies, but it’s unclear if sales of such land by foreign-held interests also are recorded. Department of Agriculture officials say they do little to verify the accuracy of the data.