Foreign companies are deeply involved in Nebraska farmland – but not how you think

Nov. 30, 2023, 5 p.m. ·

Wind Turbine Holt County 2.jpg
A windmill surrounded by wind turbines in Holt County. Farmers like Mike Zakrzewski have leased land to the Grande Prairie Wind Project, which must report foreign interest, likely because of Italian investment in the project. Zakrewski says the wind project’s benefits are immense. “It's a ridiculous amount of money into our local economy and continues to and will for the 20-year span of the project," Zakrzewski said. “We're all pretty happy about it.” Photo by Jerry L Mennenga for the Flatwater Free Press

On sweltering summer days Mike Zakrzewski’s cows neatly line themselves up by the hundreds in their pastures.

They shift as the sun crosses the sky, following a narrow line of cool shade cast by their steel pasture-mates.

In 2016, 200 wind turbines started to spin across Holt County, some of them right in the middle of Zakrzewski’s fields.

“We farm and we graze right up to the turbine bases,” he says.

Zakrzewski is one of the farmers who signed easement contracts for the Grande Prairie Wind Farm, a massive 50,000-acre project tied to foreign ownership of Nebraska farmland – though not in the way you might expect.

For starters, that 50,000-acre project doesn’t use anywhere near that much ground, Zakrzewski said. Each wind turbine occupies roughly a 100-foot diameter, meaning that combined with access roads, the Grand Prairie Wind Farm actually uses closer to 125 acres.

And the project is actually owned by a very famous, very local name: Berkshire Hathaway Energy. Grande Prairie, as required by federal law, reported that a foreign entity – in this case likely a foreign investor – had an interest in the project.

Which is how Italy came to be listed as having a foreign interest of 50,000 acres of Nebraska farmland in an oft-cited – and oft-misunderstood – representation of how much land foreign countries or companies control here.

Countries like China and Canada do have deep connections to modern Nebraska agriculture. Canadian companies are heavily invested in wind energy. A state-owned Chinese company owns Syngenta, the massive seed company, and a different Chinese company owns Smithfield Foods, a meat processing behemoth.

But that involvement in Nebraska agriculture rarely extends to actual foreign ownership of ag land, according to a Flatwater Free Press analysis of data gathered by a University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications data journalism class.

In fact, most foreign ownership of ag land has long been barred by law in Nebraska, though 795,000 acres of farmland were registered as having “foreign interest” in 2021.

“I think sometimes the perception of the public and sometimes the way it's reported by the press is people see that number and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, foreigners own 700,000 acres!’” said Rick Leonard, researcher for the Nebraska Legislature Agriculture Committee.

Very few of the interests reported are true ownership interests, Leonard said. Most are leases or – in the case of the wind development – easements, where the holder of that interest doesn't own the land. The farmer still owns it.

“We're all still farming and grazing that 50,000 acres, right up to the turbines and we share the access roads,” Zakrzewski said. “We're using that land. It's not tied up during the contract whatsoever.”

Nebraska’s foreign owners

In Flatwater Free Press’s analysis of the top 100 buyers of the past five years, only one foreign buyer appears: Blackshirt Feeders LP, a cattle feedlot in Dundy County partially owned by Canadian citizens.

Multinational companies headquartered in the U.S. also appear in both the top 100 lists for value and acres. Meta, the company that owns Facebook, is No. 4 in money spent after buying both ag and commercial land under the name Raven Northbrook. Google has bought land under the name Westwood Solutions. So has shipping giant ULINE under the name Duck Creek Ranch.

Several farming corporations on the top buyer lists also have operations in other countries.

But no corporations or individuals from China, or any country other than Canada, appeared among the top buyers in recent ag land sales data.

“It's probably not the crisis of land ownership that sometimes the public perceives,” Leonard said, “but that doesn't mean there couldn’t be other issues with foreign entities acquiring lesser than title interests.”

In Nebraska, most foreign interests in agriculture come in the form of easements and leases instead of direct land ownership.

Canada and Italy together make up about 93% of the total acres under foreign interest in Nebraska. The vast majority of those Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosures Act (AFIDA) filings are renewable energy projects located in Holt, Antelope and Banner counties.

“Many of these companies do have foreign roots,” said John Snow, a renewable energy project lawyer who practices in Nebraska. “Solar and wind have been a bigger part of those economies for some time, so they’ve gained some expertise and then they come here to develop.”

Other companies, like the German-owned Monsanto, the Chinese-owned Syngenta Seeds and the Japanese-owned Kawasaki, own farmland around their production and manufacturing plants, as is allowed by Nebraska law that makes an exception for manufacturing and industrial uses.

Individual landowners from other countries and estates also hold some of Nebraska’s foreign interests.

In total, less than 2% of Nebraska’s land in acres has any reported foreign interest, in full ownership or leases.

Researchers consider AFIDA to be the best data source available for tracking foreign interest in ag land. But it doesn’t differentiate between types of interests.

“We have seen a pretty sharp increase in the number of acres in Nebraska on which people have come under the AFIDA disclosure reporting requirements – a very sharp increase,” Leonard said.

That increase is potentially misleading, because large scale leases for the development of wind farms account for almost all of the newly reported acres.

Nebraska’s Laws so Far

Nebraska is one of the few states that ban people who aren’t U.S. citizens from owning farmland, or leasing it for longer than five years, said Dave Aiken, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln agricultural law professor.

And Nebraska has banned foreign ownership since 1889, tied to a once-infamous name in the Midwest and Great Plains: William Scully.

Scully, an Irish citizen, began buying up giant plots of Midwest farmland, including in Nebraska, in the 1850s. He then leased the land, becoming one of the first foreign landlords in the state.

Scully became a U.S. citizen in 1900, only six years before he died. Citizenship was his response to states like Nebraska passing laws, many targeting him, that sought to limit or ban foreign ownership of farmland.

Nebraska’s longtime ban is far from airtight. There are exceptions, including for oil and gas companies, railroads, land purchased for manufacturing or industrial uses, and notably, land within 3 miles of a city or village, Aiken said.

The laws also lack specific enforcement mechanisms or penalties for holding land illegally.

“My concern is that (reports of foreign ownership) simply get filed, and no one is really designated to look at it closer to see whether or not it's something that should be questioned or challenged,” said State Sen. Steve Halloran, Republican of Hastings.

What about China?

In September, the Nebraska Legislature held a hearing to address concerns about foreign land ownership – concerns partly driven by the firestorm after a Chinese company bought North Dakota farmland near Grand Forks Air Force Base.

“We have … more and more concern being expressed by private citizens all across the country about foreign ownership of U.S. real estate,” Halloran said.

Halloran, chair of the Ag Committee, said he hopes the interim study will inspire bills to update Nebraska’s laws in the next legislative session.

One of the committee’s driving concerns is the potential for foreign entities to acquire existing agribusinesses, Leonard said, like Chinese firm WH Group’s 2013 purchase of Smithfield Foods.

No Smithfield-owned properties in Nebraska have reported foreign influence through AFIDA.

In Nebraska, only one plot of ag land has reported Chinese interest: Syngenta Seeds owns 19 acres in Hamilton County, where it operates a seed corn facility. There’s also a 77-acre parcel in Douglas County reported as being owned by two people from Hong Kong, purchased in 2006.

ChemChina, a state-owned chemical company on the Department of Defense’s list of Chinese military companies, paid billions to acquire Syngenta Seeds, formerly a Swiss company, in 2017.

Across the country, about 384,000 acres have Chinese interest, including leases, which is less than 1% of total foreign-held acres, according to the USDA’s 2021 Foreign Holdings of U.S. Agricultural Land report.

Combining the parcels owned by Syngenta and the individuals from Hong Kong, Nebraska’s Chinese-affiliated land is only 0.005% of the national total.

When the wind farm comes to town

Letting Grande Prairie Wind Farm onto his property during the two-year construction phase for the project was chaotic, Zakrzewski said.

Now, the farmer occasionally waves to the technicians as they come and go. His cows continue with their lives as normal.

The wind project built new county roads to support its construction, and tax revenue from the project partially funded the construction of a new high school.

All told, Zakrzeswki said the work brought more than 500 workers to O’Neill.

“It's a ridiculous amount of money into our local economy and continues to and will for the 20-year span of the project," Zakrzewski said.

In Nebraska, wind projects are uniquely taxed based on a turbine’s capacity to produce electricity, rather than an assessor’s valuation, said Snow, the lawyer who negotiates Nebraska wind farm contracts.

Nebraska’s wind projects are generating about $17.6 million in local tax revenue across the state, said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union.

Before Grande Prairie Wind Farm started spinning, it had to file a plan with the Holt County board to eventually decommission the turbines and pay a bond for the future tear-down.

That means at the end of his contract with Berkshire Hathaway Energy and its Italian interest, Zakrzewski’s pastures will be returned to their original condition.

Flatwater Free Press reporter Yanqi Xu contributed to the data analysis tied to this story.