Hope Kimble peered out of the door of a gray cedar-shingled farmhouse five miles east of here and said, "We just live here. I don't know who it belongs to."
Little wonder. The 373-acre farm Frank and Hope Kimble live on and till here in the middle of the Eastern Shore flatlands belongs to an anonymous group of German investors who bought it for $475,000.
The Kimble farm is one of 15 Queen Anne County farms, containing 4,081 acres of rich soil, that have been sold in the past two years largely to unseen German, Dutch and Latin American investors seeking safe havens for their wealth, according to county assessor Charles E. Anthony Jr.
As the dollar declines in value against such currencies as the West German mark and the Japanese yen, American corporations and American real estate have suddenly become newly attractive to foreign investors.
Thus far, nearly $6.2 million in foreign capital has come into this one Maryland county. In the process, some of the best and biggest wheat, soybean and cornfields in the area have left the hands of Americans and been bought up by foreigners, most of whom chose to invest through American agents who hide their clients' identities.
The invasion of foreign capital has unsettled this rural region, where 19th century Know Nothings once won every elective office. And, while the rampant nationalism of that era is gone, people in this county seat of red, white and blue parking meters are still a little uneasy about what is happening around here.
In 1977 alone, nine farms sold here to foreigners, accounting for 39 percent of the farm sales and 43 percent of the crop acreage transferred from one owner to another. This year, three of 11 farms sold have gone to foreigners, who have paid an average $1,805 per acre compared to $1,237 for domestic buyers.
"It's creating a problem for younger farmer to every be able to buy land," said Robert J. Wilson, president of the Queen Anne's Farm Bureau and fresh in from a day in the fields. Wilson owns 400 acres and leases 900 more for farming in the immediate area. "The land is disappearing. You just shake your head, grit your teeth and hope for the best."
On the other hand, said local real estate agent Kenny Moore, "It's not like they're setting up some kind of a missile base out there."
The foreign purchasers here and elsewhere across the nation and especially their inflationary impact on the price of farm land, have prompted the passage of a federal law requiring registration and disclosure of foreign land ownership. The same spirit moved the Maryland General Assembly this year to direct a government inventory of foreign land ownership in the state, where an estimated 8,900 acres have left American hands since Jan. 1, 1977.
For decades, while U.S. investment dollars poured overseas, Americans were sometimes portrayed as "economic imperialists" lacking in concern for the people of other countries.
Now, with foreign funds flocking to the United States, the Maryland legislature has declared: "Absentee foreign landlords are not interested in better roads and schools because this would mean higher taxes and would bring less return on their investments . . . If foreign investors buy a substantial proportion of American farmland, what is to keep them from sending shipments of foodstuffs directly back to their own country and neglecting the needs of local residents?"
The invasion of foreign capital has been met with a mixture of unease and resignation in this basically conservative region. Farmers find themselves torn between their patriotic instincts and their belief in the free enterprise system. Several said they are uneasy over the land leaving American hands but believe a property owner should be able to sell to anyone without restriction.
"We don't got much freedom left in this country," said Herman M. Starkey, who sold two adjoining farms with 516 acres last year to Dutch interests for $725,000. "If you own a piece of ground, it should be yours to sell."
The sale of Starkey's farm was handled by a local real estate firm, Stafford & Clements of Sudlersville and a New York firm known as Lynch Farm Enterprises.
"I really can't give you any information," James B. Clements of the Sudlersville firm said. "I'm just not interested in getting involved."
Lynch Farm Enterprises has been involved in nine of the sales, according to records compiled by county tax assessor Charles E. Anthony Jr. "We operate our own farms and manage farms for others," said Robert J. Lynch. "That's all the comment we wish to make."
The Lynch brothers, Robert and Richard, first appeared on the local scene about a dozen years ago when they bought a dairy farm they still own and operate. They hired Maryland men to run it.
Their local manager is Frank Kimble who, with three other men, tills 15 Lynch-operated farms containing 3,500 acres. "Whether the farms are owned by foreigners or not, I can't tell you," Kimble said.
The owner of the farm where Kimble lives is listed in court records as a corporation called Trigo. "I'm an officer; I suspect I'm vice president," said Ralph J. Galasso, a New York attorney whose name appears in the records. "The board of directors is made up of all U.S. citizens. I don't recall [if there are foreign investors]. There is nothing I can tell you."
So far, the largest sale to foreigners here involved a 778-acre turf farm purchased for more than $1.4 million by one German family, represented by Atlanta lawyer Carl H. Cofer. In this county, according to tax assessor Anthony 9 of 15 farms sold to foreigners have gone to citizens of West Germany, which permits investors to transfer currency out of that country.
"We diversify in different states, they diversify in different countries," Cofer said. "They feel the United States is a viable investment location for them. They think in the world order of things we have less potential for confiscation of their investments. The German terrorists had a great impact for a while. They talk about the Russians, but I don't think that's a factor."
With exchange rates heavily favoring the mark over the dollar, Cofer said, "They can buy twice as much as in the early '70s. It's like a bargain to them. The People I represent are landowners who like to own and operate farms. They are not particularly interested in the return but in capital appreciation. They are not speculators. They think it's funny how fast we sell things. They are not buying to subdivide."
The architecture and landscape of Queen Anne's County, Cofer said, reminds his clients of Europe. "And also it's close to a large metropolitan area like Washington," he said. "They can fly on the Concorde from Paris, and in four hours be at their property."
In some instances, the foreigners are buying from farmers like J. Thomas Stevens of Church Hills, who sold the ancestral property where "my great-grandfather and his wife are buried" only because no heir wanted it. In others, the sellers are American speculators, turning a fast profit on land far from their homes. One such property, according to court records, was bought in May 1974 for $105,000 by an Arlington man and sold for $320,000 in July 1977 to Angopi, identified by assessor Anthony as a Dutch corporation.
Anthony, from his basement office in the 18th century stone courthouse, has come to know the press since word of the foreign invasion began to spread. "I've had TV cameras in here twice," he said, as he handed a reporter a handout he has prepared for the curious, listing all properties sold to foreigners.
A former real estate broker, Anthony marvels at the high prices paid by the foreign interests but he is "not concerned at this point." And neither are the county commissioners.
"If a man comes in here to buy a bottle of whiskey," reflected Commissioner Julius Grollman from behind the counter of his Stevensville liquor store, "I don't ask him if he's from Japan. Everything has a price."