Increasingly, land is shifting into the hands of billionaires.
By Jonathan Thompson, High Country News
Earlier this year, several Western states considered legislation that would ban or restrict foreign ownership of land, particularly agricultural parcels. While some proposed bills, including California’s, involved blanket restrictions, most sought to curtail ownership by foreign “adversaries,” mainly China, but also Iran, Venezuela and North Korea — even Saudi Arabia.
The reasoning behind this varies. Some lawmakers claim to be concerned about food security, while others are more candid about their fear of “foreigners” — especially Asian people — controlling the nation’s land. Still others say they’re worried about corporate consolidation of farmland.
Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, meanwhile, worries that foreign investors will drive up the price of farmland, squeezing young Americans out of the market. That may be the most legitimate concern overall, though Chinese investors — who own just 62,000 acres of agricultural land in Western states — are less land-hungry than billionaires, not all of whom hail from other countries: Ohio-born Ted Turner, for example, owns almost 1.1 million acres in New Mexico, or nearly 3% of the state’s private land.
This got us to wondering: Who really owns the West?
THIS SAMPLING OF FOREIGN OWNERSHIP comes from Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act reporting for 2021. Companies or parcels may have changed hands since then. At the end of 2021, foreign entities or individuals held a “significant interest” in some 10.16 million acres, not counting lease-holdings, in the Western U.S.
Der Kowboys? Germany-affiliated Las Conchas Ranch Corp. owned 134,257 acres in San Miguel County, New Mexico, land of sprawling spreads, at the end of 2021, but does not appear as an owner on current county records.
Hong Kong-owned NV Big Springs Inc. holds an interest in 108,000 acres in Elko County, Nevada. Petan Company of Nevada, registered as a foreign business, owns almost 100,000 acres in the county, and the Ruby Land & Cattle Co., with an unknown partner, owns just over 180,000 acres.
Logging for Life Insurance: Companies affiliated with Canada-based John Hancock Life Insurance own more than 660,000 acres of forestland in Washington, Oregon and California, including a 97,492-acre parcel in King County, Washington, with an estimated value of $197.7 million.
The United Kingdom-based Hondo Company owns 97,000 acres in New Mexico’s Lincoln County and another 87,000 acres in Chaves, Otero and Eddy counties.
Chino Mining, based in Japan, owns 90,953 acres of pasture in Grant County, New Mexico, plus 16,335 acres in neighboring Luna County and a total of 129,417 acres in Nevada.
Twenty Six Ranch Inc. (Virgin Islands-based) owns 79,199 acres in Elko County, Nevada, plus an additional 50,218 acres in other Nevada counties.
Canada-based Barrick Goldstrike Mines Inc. owns 72,440 acres, mostly classified as “other agricultural” land, in Nevada’s Elko County.
Paloma Investment Ltd. Partnership, based in Switzerland, owns 67,690 acres of “crop” and “other non-ag” land in Maricopa County, Arizona.
U.K.-based Atlantic Richfield Company and its subsidiary Arco Environmental Remediation own nearly 10,000 acres in New Mexico, Washington and California. This spring, it snagged another 1,000 acres of land in and around Rico, Colorado.
The Switzerland-based Butte Rock Ranches owns 5,879 acres in Montrose and Gunnison counties, Colorado.
In 2021, a company called Farmland Reserve outbid another landholding company to purchase 18,000 acres of farmland in southeastern Washington for $210 million. It might not have elicited much notice, except that Farmland Reserve is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and billionaire Bill Gates made the losing bid.
Both Gates and the church have been amassing acreage lately. Gates usually makes top-landowners lists, but the church is way ahead in terms of how much it owns nationwide. In 2020, Truth and Transparency found that church-affiliated entities owned at least 1.7 million acres across the U.S.; more recent analyses peg the acreage at 2.3 million — making it the nation’s second-largest private landowner. This land includes the grounds of temples, stake houses and other institutional buildings, but also farm and ranch land and commercial properties, most of which are held by subsidiaries.
The church’s sizable farmland holdings in the Northwest are mostly operated by AgriNorthwest, a subsidiary of Farmland Reserve, which is a subsidiary of AgReserves. The Church’s Property Reserves, City Creek Reserves and Suburban Land Reserves together hold 167 parcels in Maricopa County, Arizona, and 187 parcels in Salt Lake County, Utah, including a big chunk of downtown Salt Lake City.
COUNTRIES WITH WESTERN HOLDINGS
CANADA: 1.66 million acres. Much of this is in the form of mining, oil and gas and timber properties.
UNITED KINGDOM: 908,615 acres. That includes timber properties in the Northwest and Kennecott Utah Copper Corp’s 42,000 acres in Salt Lake County, Utah, and Moffat County, Colorado.
NETHERLANDS: 571,417 acres, including more than 100,000 acres in Washington, and 30,000 acres of sugar-growing land in Hawaii.
JAPAN: 436,907 acres, including orchards in Oregon, coffee-growing acreage in Hawaii and properties in Colorado and Washington.
LUXEMBOURG: 359,000 acres. Includes timberland in Oregon, Washington and California and resort property in Arizona and New Mexico.
MEXICO: 307,139 acres. Gents Cattle Co. holds acreage in New Mexico and mining giant Asarco owns 42,370 acres in Montana, Idaho, Colorado and Arizona.
BELGIUM: 227,621 acres. Belgium affiliated firms own more than 183,000 acres in Garfield, Rosebud and Big Horn Counties, Montana.
FRANCE: 120,000 acres, scattered across the West, including vineyards in New Mexico, California and Oregon and energy related-holdings in California.
CHINA: 62,000 acres, including 37,453 acres in Utah via Murphy Brown LLC — aka Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor — acquired by a China-based investment group in 2013.
EGYPT: 18,593 acres. Companies include Arizona Apple Orchards Inc. and Hualapai Valley Farm, also in Arizona.
SAUDI ARABIA: 5,000 acres. Fondomonte Arizona owns 147 acres in La Paz County, Arizona, where it grows alfalfa and ships the hay back to the Middle East to feed dairy cattle.
STATE OF PALESTINE: 11,420 acres.Nordic Crystal Falls’ acreage is in Stevens County, Washington.
NEPAL: 5,289 acres.This land is all held by Kamala Lama Sherpa in Sanders and Glacier counties, Montana.
SOURCES: USDA’s Farm Service Agency, Land Report, Bloomberg, San Miguel County Assessor, Elko County Assessor, Maricopa County Assessor, Salt Lake County Assessor, Weber County Assessor, Truth and Transparency, Widows Mite, Open Corporates, Turner Enterprises, Kroenke Ranches.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands.