Gov. Kristi Noem’s land protection proposal springs out of committee despite widespread ag criticism

“This is an issue that we cannot leave in the hands of the federal government,” said Sen. Erin Tobin, of Winner, who is carrying Senate Bill 185

Chad Schooley, the first vice president of the South Dakota Soybean Association, was one of around a dozen representatives from the state's agriculture lobby in the Senate Agriculture committee meeting on Feb. 14, 2023.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

PIERRE, S.D. — A prime policy initiative for Gov. Kristi Noem — part of her quest to wield state power in service of checking Chinese interests — has passed its first committee hurdle.

After hearing extensive criticism of the effect the policy might have on the dynamism of the state’s largest industry and the unilateral power it would give the governor if enacted, the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources committee voted 7-0 to move the bill to the floor, though several members harbored reservations regarding the need to tweak some of the bill’s languages and processes.

Yet proponents insisted that leaving South Dakota’s defense against a rapidly expanding set of Chinese agricultural purchases in the hands of federal processes and a yet-to-be-enforced state law would be malpractice.

“I know it's going to be odd to go against a lot of ag groups that I am a member of, and I support them all. But I understand that this is a serious issue that needs serious conversation,’ said Sen. Josh Klumb, of Mitchell, who sits on the agriculture committee. “I understand if there's concerns out there, but we’ve got to come to the table and talk. Keeping this bill alive allows that to happen.”

Chinese holdings of American farmland have increased rapidly since 2010 to a current figure of over 350,000 acres nationwide, though proponents could not say how much of that lies in South Dakota.


If enacted, Senate Bill 185 would create a five-member board called the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States - South Dakota (CFIUS-SD), modeled after the federal agency tasked with reviewing foreign purchases that could impact national security.

The committee would review any transfer of agricultural land involving a foreign entity, offering a recommendation to the governor within 180 days, or sooner under an expedited process.

The references to a Chinese purchase of land near Grand Forks Air Base in North Dakota, which the federal CFIUS allowed to proceed, indicates that some lawmakers were unconvinced that the presence of federal oversight was enough, especially considering the key position of Ellsworth Air Force Base in maintaining national security.

“This is an issue that we cannot leave in the hands of the federal government,” said Sen. Erin Tobin, of Winner, the prime sponsor of the legislation.

Opponents to the bill included a lengthy parade of nearly every agricultural interest group in the state: The Farm Bureau; The Farmers Union; the South Dakota Bankers Association; the South Dakota Realtors Association; and speakers from state groups representing corn, soybeans, wheat, dairy, cattle, pork and more.

Many of these opponents expressed that they shared Noem’s desire to defend important American resources, especially farmland.

However, they also feared that even an expedited review period would create delays in a time-sensitive industry; furthermore, some argued that the non-binding nature of the committee’s recommendations could allow a governor to make unilateral decisions based on little other than personal preference.

“It's important to remember that the governor is not obligated to follow the recommendation of the committee,” Scott VanderWal, the president of the South Dakota Farm Bureau, said during his testimony. “This grants unilateral authority to one person, something that the Farm Bureau, regardless of the issue, is deeply concerned about.”


Under current federal law, specifically the 1978 Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act, the Farm Service Agency monitors “foreign investors who acquire, transfer, or hold an interest in U.S. agricultural land.”

Due to a parallel state law passed in 1979, the federal agency sends biannual reports to South Dakota laying out the scope of foreign ownership in the state.

That same state law, which has been on the books for decades, disallows any foreign person, entity or government from purchasing over 160 acres of farmland unless that country has a treaty with the United States.

Violations of this law are supposed to be referred to the state’s attorney general, although multiple speakers in committee said that law has never been enforced.

“We know that some foreign countries have found a way around it,” Tobin said.

However, the prime sponsor of that 1979 legislation, Kent Frerichs, a Wilmot lawmaker who served in the state House from 1975 until 1989, told Forum News Service in an email that, rather than creating entirely new bureaucratic entities, the answer is to “aggressively enforce our current statute,” and potentially embed some definitional changes to include oversight over corporations.

As of press time, Ian Fury, a spokesperson for Gov. Kristi Noem, did not respond to questions regarding whether the administration, over the past four years, has monitored these biannual reports regarding foreign ownership in South Dakota, and whether any referrals to the attorney general have been considered.

According to a copy of the federal report of foreign land ownership from the end of 2021 obtained by Forum News Service through a public records request, China and Russia do not own any agricultural land or businesses in the state.


Some sparse holdings come from owners with ties to Iran, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, in addition to international tax havens such as the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands.

The most wide-ranging holdings in the state belong to Canada, France and the United Kingdom, respectively, with most of the holdings coming in the form of wind farms.

The agricultural committee was not the first arena this session where a major policy initiative of Gov. Kristi Noem butted heads with interest groups in the state. Last week, her Stronger Families Scholarship for foster children in the state was voted down in the Senate Education Committee after heavy criticism from the public education lobby.

“I am extremely disappointed in that decision. It is even more disheartening to know that their decision to kill this bill resulted from a flurry of lies,” Noem wrote in a statement last week. “Lobbyists with the teachers’ union and other establishment organizations killed the bill by lying about what it did.”

The committee’s unanimous approval of the bill comes just one day before Noem is set to deliver an address to the America First Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., regarding “the blueprint for a state response to the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party.”

Noem’s policy network already includes executive orders banning the use of TikTok on state devices and ordering the state investment council to review its $19 billion portfolio for Chinese ties.

Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at
What To Read Next
Get Local