Securing Iowa’s valuable farmland

Mike Naig

One of my favorite days of the entire year is the Century and Heritage Farm Ceremony that takes place during the Iowa State Fair.

During the all-day event in the historic livestock pavilion, hundreds of multi-generational farm families, many in matching T-shirts, wait their turns to proudly walk across the stage to receive recognition for owning a Century Farm (100 years) or Heritage Farm (150 years). Since the Century Farm program launched in 1976 as part of the country’s bicentennial celebration, more than 21,000 farms have been honored, and more than 1,800 farms have received the Heritage Farm distinction since the program began in 2006. It’s truly a special milestone for each family.

Earning the Century or Heritage Farm designation is the culmination of a lot of hard work, sacrifice and determination generation after generation. This family farm is their legacy. Through market volatility and family dynamics, World Wars I and II and the Great Depression, political changes and pandemics, unpredictable weather and a farm crisis, the advent of the internet and many other production innovations, these farm families have persevered and found a way. Their resilience is why Iowa is famous for agriculture and why agriculture continues to drive our state’s economy.

This long and proud tradition of multi-generational family farming is the reason I am steadfast in my support of efforts to protect Iowa’s valuable and precious farmland. As I visit with Iowans in my travels to each of our state’s 99 counties every year, farmers and non-farmers alike share serious concerns about foreign adversaries buying our farm ground. It’s a concern that has made its way into the current presidential campaign, has spurred federal legislation and has led to other states creating their own laws.

Fortunately, Iowa already has some of the strongest state-level protections against foreign ownership in the nation. In the 1970s and early 1980s, our legislators and former Gov. Bob Ray had the foresight and vision to put in place our current law. While not perfect, Iowa’s foreign ownership law has largely been effective, and it is now serving as a model for other states to follow. However, like many issues, it’s important that we revisit the law from time to time, evaluate if changes are needed and, if necessary, find ways to modernize it for the future.

Over the past several months, I’ve been working closely with Gov. Kim Reynolds and Attorney General Brenna Bird as well as key legislators on a proposal that can give Iowans further confidence that our invaluable farmland will not end up in the hands of foreign actors.

The legislation focuses on three key areas. First, we must strengthen reporting requirements so there is full transparency about who owns our land. Secondly, the attorney general must have the tools she needs, including subpoena power, to fully and aggressively investigate any concerns that arise. Finally, we need tough penalties that punish wrongdoers while also serving as a formidable deterrent to those who would otherwise attempt to break our laws.

As we pursue these improvements, it’s important that we maintain our balanced approach to foreign ownership and investment in this state. We have many foreign-owned businesses with a footprint in Iowa, in communities big and small. These businesses contribute to the vitality and vibrancy of our communities, providing job opportunities for an estimated 50,000 Iowans and important products and services. This is where balance is key. We unquestionably want to keep job-creating business investment coming into the state, while clearly preventing foreign entities from directly competing with and displacing our farmers by owning farmland in perpetuity.   

Throughout each year, in partnership with The Big Show on WHO Radio and WMT as well as the Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers, I recognize about a dozen farm families with the Wergin Good Farm Neighbor Award. Many of these families own and operate Century or Heritage Farms and are part of the lifeblood of the communities they call home.

They represent the very best of Iowa – the kind of people who volunteer to assist with community events, bring supper to a church member just home from the hospital, coach the youth baseball team, lead the 4-H club and pull a neighbor out of a snowbank. These families make Iowa special and unique and are the reason I remain committed to keeping Iowa farm ground in American hands.

Mike Naig is the Iowa secretary of agriculture.