Nebraska might push to clarify 1889 state law on foreign land ownership

State Sen. Halloran says constituents worried about China are pressing for change

By: - September 15, 2023 5:39 pm

Members of the Nebraska Legislature’s Agriculture Committee listen to testimony from University of Nebraska-Lincoln extension associate specialist Bradley Lubben during a hearing on foreign ownership of land. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Nebraska has had a law on the books since 1889 limiting foreign ownership and leases of land, an expert on agricultural law told the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee on Friday. 

Micah Brown of the National Agricultural Law Center in Arkansas, tells the Nebraska Legislature’s Agriculture Committee what holes he sees in the state’s law on foreign ownership and leases of agricultural land. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

But state lawmakers never clarified how they wanted to enforce the law, which agency would enforce it or what penalty would be levied for violating it, said Micah Brown of the National Agricultural Law Center in Arkansas.

“The biggest hole as I read it in Nebraska’s law … it’s one of these traditional foreign ownership laws that would restrict anybody. But there’s no enforcement or penalty provisions,” Brown said.

Ag Committee Chairman State Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings said he would consider proposing a bill fixing those flaws. He said the state has an interest in policing foreign ownership of farm ground.

“Too often we write legislation on various issues after a problem has gotten too big to do much about it,” he said. “I would rather write legislation that carefully prevents a problem from getting out of hand.”

Halloran and five other members of the Ag Committee listened and asked questions for about 90 minutes Friday during an interim study hearing on the topic.

China is a focus

Halloran has said reports about Chinese interest in U.S. farmland and concerns from constituents spurred him and other lawmakers to pursue the study.

Interest in legal limits on land purchases has increased nationally after Chinese investors purchased pork producer Smithfield Co. and seed giant Syngenta.  

Halloran said his top concern is that the current system of registering foreign ownership relies on people and corporations purchasing or leasing land filing the paperwork with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

To him, it makes more sense to consider requiring new owners to fill out a form when they file a land purchase with the county where the land is located and have the state collect the information.

A different slide from Micah Brown of the National Agricultural Law Center in Arkansas shows national data on laws against foreign ownership of ag land. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

USDA recently released information from 2021 showing that foreign interests own or hold leases on about 790,000 acres of ag land in Nebraska.

That represents about 1.7% of the ag land in the state. As recently as 2010, that number was just over 34,000 acres, or less than one-tenth of 1 percent.

Wind and solar driving foreign investment

Bradley Lubben, an extension associate specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said most Nebraska land owned or leased by foreign interests is for wind and solar power generation. Nebraska farmers lease land to energy companies that is often held until it is needed.

Today, the highest concentrations of foreign-owned ag land in Nebraska are in Antelope, Holt and Banner Counties, with most driven by Canadian and Italian companies with long-term leases.

Despite national security fears about Chinese ownership of U.S. ag land, more than 90% of foreign-owned or leased ag land in Nebraska is held by America’s neighbors to the north. China ranks 18th, officials said.

Trade impacts?

State Sen. Jane Raybould of Lincoln questioned witnesses about the potential impacts on trade in pursuing tighter controls on foreign land ownership.

Two testifiers told her they were unsure what those impacts would be. Lubben said Kawasaki owns farmland around its Lincoln plant and Syngenta also owns land in the state.

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

“Trade conflicts can pop up quickly, and they can linger many, many years,” Lubben said. “China was maybe the No. 1 (U.S.) soybean customer — until they weren’t.”

John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, said he appreciated the committee looking into the issue, and he hopes it will act.

Sure, Nebraska has “a law on the books that gives citizens the idea that something is being handled.” But, he said, it needs enforcement and penalties spelled out.

“Our law is pretty much a toothless tiger,” he said. “We ought to update it. … There is a lot of merit in shutting the door before the horse is gone.”

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.

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