The paved road turns to gravel behind massive structures stretching a mile. Ahead, a bulldozer flattens emptied-out land.
It used to be farm ground. Then came the buildings, the parking lots, the high-tech machines, and the colorful sign bearing a well-known name: Google.
The company, through a Delaware-based limited liability company called Fireball Group, spent $25 million in Sarpy County for roughly 280 acres, most of which used to be farmland, assessor’s records show.
In Douglas County, Google dropped another $21 million to accumulate more than 400 acres northwest of Omaha, 90% once farmland.
And in Lincoln, Google owns some-500 acres, close to 500 of which used to be farmland, according to Lancaster County Assessor’s records.
Google isn’t the only tech giant gobbling up land once used for crops. Meta, formerly known as Facebook, has poured more than $50 million into nearly 900 acres of agricultural land in Sarpy County since 2017, according to records compiled by the Flatwater Free Press from the Sarpy County Assessor’s Office.
Meta and Google, acting through various LLCs, are among the top buyers of agricultural land by money spent, according to a Flatwater Free Press analysis of state sales data gathered by a University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications journalism class.
Both paid a premium for Nebraska farmland. Meta paid nearly seven times the per-acre price for farmland in eastern Nebraska. In Sarpy County, Google paid almost 10 times the regional average.
Meta and Google purchased the land to build data centers, massive warehouse-sized buildings that are essential to today’s cloud-based technology. The centers represent substantial investments by both companies. They also embody the ongoing urbanization of former farmland.
Some view the transformation as an inevitability and net positive. Others want farmland to remain farmland.
But keeping farmland for farming, particularly on the outskirts of Nebraska’s growing metro areas, can be a tough proposition. That’s especially true when deep-pocketed buyers are involved.
“Nobody is paying $50,000 an acre to farm beans,” said Michael Goodwillie, compliance officer in the Douglas County Assessor’s Office.
Douglas County has the highest percentage of registered out-of-state farmland buyers in the past five years statewide, Flatwater Free Press’ analysis shows.
Meta didn’t reply to three Flatwater Free Press email inquiries about the total Nebraska ag land it owns and its plans for future purchases.
A spokesperson for Google didn’t respond to specific questions posed by the Flatwater Free Press, and instead pointed to a press release about its new round of investments in Nebraska, totaling $1.2 billion, which includes construction of the planned Lincoln data center.
Data centers have sprung up across the country and found their way into the Midwest. In these buildings, racks of machines store and process data for web applications that tech companies provide to users.
Google and Meta chose Nebraska thanks to the rarity of natural disasters and the reliable fiber network in the Omaha area, said Mark Norman, vice president of economic development at the Greater Omaha Chamber, which pushed to bring data centers to the Omaha area.
Both companies have built in locations “targeted for industrial and commercial development,” Norman said.
“It would have developed in the same land-use fashion,” he said. “It just happened to be a data center as opposed to a warehouse, as opposed to a manufacturing facility.”
In Sarpy County, Meta and Google landed on locations near Highway 50 and sent representatives to knock on nearby property owners’ doors.
Through an LLC called Raven Northbrook, Meta bought its first parcel in Sarpy County – 140 acres – from the Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Omaha for $7 million. The company agreed to the church’s request to not use the land for abortion and contraception services or counseling, production or distribution of porn, for payday loan operations, or as a salvage yard, tattoo parlor or gas station, according to the deed.
Deborah Bowman’s family farmed 77 acres of the land now under Meta’s data center for more than a century. Bowman, in her 70s, grew up two miles south of there.
She felt backed into a corner to give up the land, she said, noting her lawyer encouraged her to sell her property.
“I did not want to sell it or have Facebook take it,” she said. “That was absolutely the last thing I wanted done. … I grew up where that land (is).”
After two years of negotiation, she eventually swapped her land for a similarly-sized plot owned by her neighbor, who got paid by Raven Northbrook, she said. The neighbor sold three other parcels separately to Meta for $23 million, sales records show.
“My heart was in their original land. I felt I had no other alternative. So I crossed the road and went to the other land,” she said.
On paper, Bowman’s old land was worth $5 million. The land she currently farms is worth much less, but that could change if another developer willing to pay comes along. She doesn’t intend to sell.
“I have no desire to sell it. I just wish this whole thing would have never happened,” she said.
Bowman had never heard of Raven Northbrook when its representative approached her. The landowner of Meta’s Sarpy data center is tied to a warehouse five minutes away from the data center campus, tucked in a row of other warehouses behind giant trucks.
Before Raven Northbrook negotiated and bought the land, Sarpy County Commissioner Don Kelly said he only knew a Fortune 500 company was coming to town, but not which one.
Google bought land in Nebraska using three different LLCs – Fireball Group, Westwood Solutions, and Agate in Sarpy, Douglas and Lancaster counties respectively – all registered to the same Delaware address.
To Kelly, Meta and Google’s purchases come down to demand, no different from the developer that paid millions for land to build Gretna’s Hy-Vee.
“So obviously, they’re smart people. They looked at the return on investment and felt the land was worth every penny, and they bought it,” said Kelly.
Now the county boasts more than 190,000 residents, more than double the population in 1980. As the county grows, more farmland will surely turn into industrial or commercial areas, Kelly said, but it’s his job as an elected official to make sure the growth is “controlled” and “planned.”
Agricultural acres in Sarpy County and Douglas County have both declined in the past decade by more than 10%, according to Nebraska Department of Revenue reports.
Tech companies are far from the only non-ag buyers of farmland.
In Douglas and Sarpy counties, Celebrity Homes bought about 450 acres of farmland between 2018 and 2022, state sales records show. A manager of the home builder did not return phone calls seeking comment.
“Nebraska is a state that has agricultural roots as the basis of our economy. … But you can’t keep an urban county agriculture forever,” said Kelly.
Land used for agricultural purposes in Nebraska enjoys a lighter tax burden. Owners can apply for a special evaluation program that assesses agricultural land at 75% of market value, but the land must remain farmed to qualify.
Data centers can apply for other tax breaks through the state’s business incentive program, ImagiNE Nebraska. These include breaks on sales, use and personal property taxes – taxes imposed on computer servers, electrical cords and other equipment.
Once farmland is developed, the property taxes the county can collect shoot up, Kelly said.
A Meta parcel’s property tax grew by almost 35 times two years after it was converted to industrial property from ag land, according to assessor’s records.
Increased tax revenue can help fund the local school districts and county government, Kelly said.
Meta and Google have paid millions in property taxes per year, a Flatwater review of assessor’s records shows.
Data centers bring higher net economic benefits compared to traditional residential housing developments, said Steven Shultz, a land use economics professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
While generating far greater property tax revenue, data centers don’t require substantial public expenditures on services such as schools, parks and transportation for large numbers of employees, he explained.
And they should have a limited impact on neighbors’ property tax bills, Shultz said, because county assessors typically use a technique that considers construction costs and sale amounts of all comparable properties and often excludes purchases that clearly changed the land use.
“The adjacent property owners should be ecstatic their property values are increasing due to the data centers while their tax values stay the same,” Shultz said.
Jane Amerine is not ecstatic. The home she has lived in for more than 40 years is among a cluster of houses tucked behind the trees, only hundreds of yards west of Meta’s Sarpy County data center.
The two-story building her parents built in 1980 had been in a peaceful neighborhood, away from the hustle and bustle of metro Omaha.
Until 2017, when she began hearing the construction noises.
She’s not happy that Meta and Google are displacing farmland, using a lot of power and sucking water out of the community.
Two other companies have since started constructing warehouses north of her home.
“The economic development people, the county commissioners, the city government … if they can get some sort of data center or speculative warehouse or some big commercial development and they lose me, they don’t care,” Amerine said.
The speed at which the county loses farmland is a choice made by elected officials, Amerine said. In Washington County, farmland acreage has merely dipped by 0.2% in the past decade.
Sewer, roads and other infrastructure and municipal services that follow developments like the data centers, on the other hand, add value to the land nearby like Amerine’s property.
In a metro-adjacent area with projected growth like Sarpy County, the market value of agricultural and residential land will likely rise, Shultz said.
Amerine said she never wanted to, but her family will leave the county eventually because of the rapid changes that have transformed her once tranquil neighborhood.
Kelly thinks Amerine has a fair point, but overall the charitable giving and tax revenue brought by these developments bring value to the community, he said.
“A big data center perhaps would not make an ideal neighbor for somebody that wanted to just have a rural farm site and farm for the rest of their life. No one’s gonna tell them they can’t do that,” Kelly said. “But my point is that whether it’s Facebook or somebody else, growth is gonna come. There’s nothing I can do to stop it.”
Flatwater Free Press reporter Destiny Herbers contributed to the data analysis used in this story. The series, “Who’s Buying Nebraska?” was made possible by a grant from the Center for Rural Strategies and Grist.
Who’s Buying Nebraska?
A Flatwater Free Press series is focused on the answer to that question, and diving deeper into the corporate farms, multinational corporations, famed billionaires and even a powerful church who are buying huge swaths of Nebraska farmland.