A Northwest Missouri legislator said a new state law that allows limited foreign ownership of farmland will protect the rural economy.
During last week's veto session, a majority of state lawmakers in both chambers voted to override Gov. Jay Nixon's veto of an omnibus agriculture bill. Mr. Nixon had vetoed the measure in early July, saying the language would eliminate a ban on foreign ownership and that major agriculture groups were opposed.
The bill instead establishes a 1 percent cap on foreign ownership of farmland in the state.
Rep. Casey Guernsey, R-Bethany, carried the measure in the Missouri House. He believes the law improves the accountability over prior provisions regarding foreign ownership.
"That's something I've been working on for the better part of two years," Mr. Guernsey said of the topic. "The problem is, it doesn't work. There's more (foreign) ownership of farmland than ever before. We just needed a way to put teeth in that law. There's no real prohibition of foreign ownership of land right now."
The Chinese firm Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd. seeks to purchase Smithfield Foods for nearly $5 billion. Smithfield is the parent firm of Murphy-Brown, which has a major pork production operation spread across five Northwest Missouri counties. Shuanghui's proposed takeover was revealed in late May.
"If they become a bad player, we can act accordingly," Mr. Guernsey said.
Numerous lawmakers believed the 1 percent threshold was needed, Mr. Guernsey said, as a common-sense barrier against any unlimited foreign farmland ownership.
"I worked very closely with Smithfield over my term of office," he said. "This is the economy of small communities at stake."
Mr. Guernsey said the action was "good public policy" even with Murphy-Brown as the largest employer in his House district. He is chairman of the House Agri-Business Committee.
A Smithfield spokeswoman in Virginia said the law will have no bearing on Shuanghui International's plans.
"Smithfield Foods and Shuanghui International identified this issue during their discussions and it presents no obstacles to closing the proposed combination," said Keira Lombardo, vice president of investor relations and corporate communications.
"Only a few of them have applicable laws that need to be satisfied," she said, referring to states where the company operates. "We intend to consult and work closely with appropriate state officials."
The Missouri Farm Bureau opposes allowing foreign farmland ownership of any sort, president Blake Hurst said Monday. He estimated that the revision will allow right around 300,000 acres of Missouri farmland to fall under overseas control.
"It's certainly not what our members wanted," he said of the override, adding that no members called the office in support of the legislation. About 50,000 acres of Smithfield property would come under control of Shuanghui, he said.
Smithfield's brand labels include Farmland, Armour, John Morrell, and Curly's.
The bill that becomes law also increases the penalty for stealing livestock and changes Missouri's animal abuse and neglect laws.