Interim legislative study seeks to determine how much Nebraska land is foreign-owned

Incident where Chinese firm sought to buy land near North Dakota air base spawned concern, but new data shows Chinese own little land in Nebraska

By: - July 28, 2023 5:45 am

A John Deere combine harvests a field of soybeans during the fall near Denton, Nebraska. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — If you look at an annual federal report on “foreign holdings” of farmland in Nebraska, your heart might skip a beat — it says that more than 791,000 acres was foreign owned by 2022.

That’s more than twice the land contained in Douglas County (home to Omaha) and about 1.7% of the total farm and ranch property in the state.

But an interim study being launched by the Nebraska Legislature is planning to drill down into those federal numbers, which officials and recent data indicate mostly reflects an increase in acreage leased for wind farms by companies with some foreign ownership.

State Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings, who asked for the interim study, said the overall issue touches on food security, U.S. sovereignty and growing anxiety about China.

State Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska News Service)

He said he’s hoping an interim study will help discover whether Nebraska needs legislation restricting foreign holdings of Nebraska farm and ranch land, and whether foreign ownership is impacting the price of farmland.

“We’re just going to try to get a little more clarity on the issue, to see how much foreign ownership there really is,” Halloran said. “The more clarity, the better.”

The Legislature’s Agriculture Committee, which Halloran heads, has scheduled an interim public hearing Sept. 15.

It appears to be a hot-button issue for policymakers, both locally and nationally. Twenty-eight of the Unicameral Legislature’s 49 senators signed onto the interim study resolution. And the U.S. Senate earlier this week voted to curb purchases of farmland by four countries — China, Iran, Russia and North Korea.

Foreign holdings increased 20-fold

The Nebraska interim study resolution cites federal figures indicating that foreign holdings of Nebraska ag land increased 20-fold from 2010 to 2020, from about 34,000 acres to 690,000 acres.

The senator said the hearing was inspired, in part, by concern over the purchase of 300 acres by a Chinese-owned corn processing company near an Air Force base in North Dakota in 2022. There were fears that the Chinese would use the location to spy on the base.

North Dakota responded by passing a law prohibiting “foreign adversaries” from developing and owning real property in the state, effective Aug. 1.

Halloran said he’s fielded concerns from some Nebraskans about the extent of foreign ownership of land in the state and whether local farmers and ranchers are being displaced.

“I think most all Nebraskans would have some level of anxiety if it got out of hand,” he said.

‘Rumor mill speculation’

John Hansen, of the Nebraska Farmers Union, said farmers don’t like “big anything” coming and out-competing with locals for farmland.

John Hansen
John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union (courtesy photo)

“There’s been a lot of rumor mill speculation about who’s buying all of this land. Is it the Russians, is it the Chinese?” Hansen said, adding that it’s a good idea to “get to the bottom of it.” 

He said a bigger concern for farmers might be the extent of foreign ownership in fertilizer production and processing of livestock.

The federal government, since 1978, has required foreign investors “who acquire, transfer, or hold an interest in” agriculture land in the U.S. to file a report under the Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act (AFIDA).

That’s the report that showed the dramatic increase in foreign holdings of ag land in Nebraska. Its latest report pegged the total amount, as of Dec. 31, 2021, at 791,176 acres.

The same report found no evidence that land values or rental expenses had risen any more where foreign holdings were reported than in areas where there was little foreign investment.

International holdings

Canadian investors reported the largest amount of foreign-held agricultural and non-agricultural land in the United States, with 31% of the total, or 12.8 million acres, according to USDA figures.

Investors from the Netherlands and Italy ranked No. 2 and No. 3, with 12% and 7% of the foreign holdings, respectively.

China, as of the end of 2021, held 383,935 acres, which is less than 1% of all foreign-held land in the state.

Texas, which has dozens of wind farms, has the largest amount of foreign-held agricultural land in the U.S., with approximately 5.3 million acres.

Maine has the second largest amount, with just over 3.6 million acres, which likely reflects leases of forest land for lumber production.

Recent, more detailed data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that the vast majority of those foreign holdings are companies that have leased land for wind farms. (If a company has at least 10% foreign ownership, it must report.) Wind energy has expanded rapidly in Nebraska over the past decade.

Only one report listed Chinese ownership

Of the 1,991 individual reports, only one lists ownership interest from China, and that was Syngenta Seeds of Hamilton County, which reported owning 19 acres. It is owned by ChemChina, which acquired the company from its Swiss owners in 2016.

Wind farms reporting foreign investment included Invenergy (Canada), Rattlesnake Creek Wind (Italy), Grand Prairie Wind (Italy), Prairie Breeze Wind (Canada), North Fork Wind (United Kingdom), Haystack Wind (Italy and Denmark), Flat Water Wind (Spain) and JW Prairie Wind (Germany). (Wind farms lease property on which to locate wind turbines; farmers continue to farm land around them.)

Additionally, chemical companies reported foreign ownership, including Monsanto (Germany), Agrex Inc. (Japan) and Terra Chemical International (Canada).

Kawasaki Motors, a Japanese firm operating a huge plant near Lincoln, also reported land holdings, as did another major Lincoln employer, Sandoz Pharmaceuticals (Switzerland) and a massive feedlot  being built near Haigler by a group of Canadian veterinarians, Blackshirt Feeders.

Only a handful or so of actual farms are listed on the recent listing that have some foreign investment.

Micah Brown, a staff attorney with the Arkansas-based National Agricultural Law Center, said concerns have been expressed in Congress and elsewhere about the accuracy of the AFIDA data.

Among the concerns: Does everyone report? Who is required to report?

“There’s ambiguities in this,” said Brown, who will testify at the Nebraska hearing in September.

He said it prompted Congress to order the USDA to provide the recently released “detailed data” on foreign holdings that included the companies or individuals involved and the origin of the foreign ownership.

While no state outright bans foreign ownership of land, about 24 states, including Nebraska, have some limits. Nebraska’s laws go back to 1889 and deal with “aliens” inheriting land and banning majority alien membership on corporate boards.

But it’s unclear whether those statutes are being enforced these days. Greg Lemon of the Nebraska Real Estate Commission said he’s unaware of any enforcement action being taken, though he does get an occasional call about such state laws.


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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.