On sweltering summer days Mike Zakrzewski’s cows neatly line themselves up by the hundreds in their pastures.
They shift sideways 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 of Holt County land.
And the wind farm project is actually owned by a very famous, very local name. Berkshire Hathaway Energy owns Grande Prairie Wind LLC. 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.
Make no mistake: 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 the land and conducts farming operations.
Easement acreages can be misleading, Zakrzewski said, because the total amount of land that the company operates on, and has access to, is a fraction of a percent of the listed size of the project.
“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. but operating globally, 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, largely for data center construction, 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.
AFIDA is considered by researchers to be the best data source available for tracking foreign interest in ag land. But it is flawed, because the information offered is basic, and doesn’t differentiate between different types of ownerships.
“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 significant, but potentially misleading, because large scale leases for the development of wind farms account for almost all of the newly reported acres.
The Agriculture Committee is working on an interim study to understand foreign interests in Nebraska beyond AFIDA reports, and to determine if legislation is needed to address the rise in reported interests.
“It’s a topical topic that people are raising concerns about,” Leonard said. “I know a number of states have acted to put in place legislation that would place some regulation or restriction on foreign entities’ ownership of property.”
A 19th-century law still in play today
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, traveled to the United States in 1850 and began buying up giant plots of Midwest farmland, including in Nebraska. He then leased his thousands of acres out, becoming one of the first foreign landlords in the state. He was known for forcing renters to take good care of the land, putting in conservation practices far ahead of his time. He was also known for being hard-driving, hard-headed and tight-fisted.
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.
While Nebraska has long had such a ban, it’s 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.
And Nebraska’s foreign ownership laws also lack specific enforcement mechanisms or penalties for holding land illegally.
“Nebraska has some decent laws regarding foreign ownership, but they’re quite dated,” said State Sen. Steve Halloran, Republican of Hastings. “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.”
Under current Nebraska law, the long-term leases that farmers like Zakrzewski sign with renewable energy projects tied to foreign investment may be legal – or not, Aiken said. Leases with foreign entities are restricted to five years, but wind projects often span 30 to 60 years.
Renewable energy projects could be justified under exemptions for an industrial use of land, or for the purpose of public utilities. Those arguments have not been tested in court.
There’s no office assigned to check that corporations are following Nebraska’s ownership laws or reporting foreign stakeholders, Aiken said.
“I think it’s probably fair to say that there’s no effective enforcement of these requirements … these are things that are just kind of falling through the cracks,” Aiken said.
Wind turbines in Antelope County. Much focus, both in Nebraska and across the Midwest, has been on Chinese ownership of American farmland. Nebraska law prohibits the foreign ownership of land, but has exceptions and legal loopholes, some of them untested, for things like long-term wind farm leases, many tied to Canada. Photos by Jerry L Mennenga for the Flatwater Free Press
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. (Correction: This story identified the wrong state where farmland was purchased.)
“We have, I don’t know if it’s more tension than ever with other foreign countries, China specifically, but there’s just 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’s heard a lot of comments from various Nebraskans about foreign ownership. 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. But Smithfield properties in Colorado, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, Utah and Virginia all reported Chinese influence under the name Murphy Brown LLC.
“Land is maybe lower on the list relative to questions of agribusiness, whether it’s processing, whether it’s fertilizer, whether it’s seed … those probably end up being higher headline issues,” Brad Lubben, UNL ag economics professor, said during the hearing.
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.
Syngenta has faced legislative restrictions to its land ownership in other states.
Earlier this year, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a law prohibiting Chinese entities from owning land in the state. In October, Arkansas used that law to order Syngenta Seeds and its subsidiaries to sell its land holdings within the next two years.
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, and his cows continue with their lives as normal, enjoying shade from the towering turbines.
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, and millions of dollars for local businesses.
“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.”
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.
Snow said all Nebraska wind projects are limited to 40 years unless both the operator and the farmer agree to extend the contract.
Before the wind farm started spinning, the project had to file a plan with the Holt County board to eventually decommission the wind turbines. A bond is set aside to pay for the 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.
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.