Who’s buying Nebraska? That’s the question the Flatwater Free Press is answering in a multi-part, multi-month series. An FFP analysis of five years of land sales data originally gathered by a University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications data journalism class shows that, from 2018 to 2022, corporate farms, multinational corporations, out-of-state investors, Nebraska’s governor, famed billionaires and even a powerful church bought up large amounts of Nebraska farmland.
Why it matters: Who is buying Nebraska land, and how much, has long been the subject of rampant rumor but little fact. The FFP project seeks to bring this information to light by interpreting Nebraska Department of Revenue land sales data and slicing through a thicket of limited liability companies, or LLCs, that often obscure the actual buyer of the land.
The information also matters as land prices spiral and many younger farmers and ranchers are unable to buy land.
Scroll through the Top 10 buyers, which gives you more information on the very top buyers by money spent and by acreage. And explore the Top 100 tables, which shows where the Top 100 buyers are headquartered.
The first table shows buyers in order of the total money they spent on ag land purchases between 2018 and 2022. The second lists buyers by the total number of acres purchased.
Some appear on both lists.
A note about the columns
The sale amount (column Total Cost) represents the total amount paid for real properties involved in the transactions and sometimes includes buildings in addition to land, but not business interests or personal property.
The total agricultural acreage (column Ag Acres) in each transaction only reflects the amount of land zoned as agricultural in that purchase. For example, Raven Northbrook, a company tied to Facebook, purchased land in Sarpy County for $32.9 million in the Greenbelt area. The total amount paid included both agricultural properties (76.6 acres) and nonagricultural land, the latter not included in the dataset.
The top buyer lists compiled for this series came from sales records of agricultural properties from 2018 through 2022 collected by a UNL journalism class. Flatwater Free Press made a series of additional public records requests to the Nebraska Department of Revenue for specific stories in the series. We made several changes to the data for clarity and accuracy.
The analysis excluded what the Department of Revenue considered as “non-qualified sales,” which means these sales were between family members or those with close ties, and didn’t meet the standard of an “arm’s length transaction.”
The original buyer name column featured differences in spelling, capitalization, and punctuation for individual organizations. We have standardized those inconsistencies across all recorded sales to the best of our abilities using OpenRefine programs.
Some numbers were logged incorrectly in the data. We have identified a couple of cases where decimal places were off, overinflating the cost of the sale. In those cases, we have made adjustments to the numbers, but there may be more errors that we did not encounter.
After standardizing buyer names, we aggregated by buyer and calculated the total acreage of land bought and the amount paid.
For the top 100 buyers by both value of sales and total acres, we manually cleaned and verified the names of each buyer, combining some based on address data and additional public records. We also requested the addresses of buyers and additional years of data from the state Department of Revenue for further background research of specific companies on the top 100 lists.
For example, Farmland Reserve Inc. made purchases under longer titles like “Farmland Reserve Inc. A Utah Nonprofit Organization.” When we identified titles like this, we changed the name to the simplest version of the corporation name, but kept the original in a separate column. In the case of Farmland Reserve, combining names gave a more accurate total of its purchases– and changed its ranking from number 6 to number 1.
We also chose to combine several families who appeared in the top 100 in different configurations. The Johnston family, for example, made purchases under a combination of names together and separately. The family appears in this list as one entry “James, Judith & Jeffrey Johnston” because we were able to link all members of the family.