Author Topic: Foreign interests buying up Australian farms - to preserve live exports?  (Read 1733 times)

WA Export News

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It seems the foreign interests are endeavouring to assure their food source for the future.

Export News Tasmania

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Foreign interests buying up Australian farms - to preserve live exports?
« Reply #1 on: April 18, 2012, 06:16:49 PM »
COLEAMBALLY grain farmer John Ward has taken a stand. He decided early this year not to sell a family cropping and sheep farm in Griffith, NSW, to the Chinese or to any other prospective foreign buyers, despite several overseas inquiries, even if it meant accepting a lower price.

After seeing large numbers of neighbouring historic Riverina wool properties bought by foreign conglomerates, Ward was determined to put his foot down.

"You have to make a stand somewhere and for me this was it; we are getting ourselves into a situation where we soon won't own our own land and will no longer be able to produce food for our nation," Ward says.

"This isn't just me; there are plenty of farmers who have worked their butts off for nothing for years, who are fed up at now having to watch these people coming in with bucketloads of money made under different tax and wage systems, buying up all our land."

Ward thinks the shift is sad, that it threatens food security and possibly spells the end of the family farm. "The average young Australian who wants to get into agriculture can't get a look-in any more," he says. "We are going to end with foreign-owned land that is just held as an investment and not farmed properly, or that is leased back by absentee landlords to locals to share-farm."

Ward is not alone in his views.

The chorus of concern about foreign ownership of farmland is growing daily, fuelled by frequent news of large property sales to foreign companies.

Just last week, China's third richest man, Zong Qinghou, head of the Hangzhou Wahaha Group, announced he planned to spend $220 million this year buying dairy farms in Western Australia.

It followed the purchase of one of WA's biggest dairy farms, Ravenhill, in January by an unrelated Chinese buyer with "film, TV and food interests" and a big push into the Tasmanian powdered milk market by yet another Chinese company.

Last year the Qatar government-backed Hassad Foods spent more than $40m buying Australian properties, including the sweeping Clover Downs sheep station near Cunnamulla in Queensland for $18.5m.

Chinese textile corporation Shandong Ruyi paid $14m last year for flagship wool property Larundel near Ballarat (see story, Page 16), while Chinese investors also bought prime 4100ha Bobbara Station near Yass, NSW, and the historic 3000ha Mt Falcon Station at Tooma, NSW.

A study by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences in January found 11.3 per cent of Australia's farmland - 44 million ha - was owned or part-owned by foreign interests in 2010. In the Northern Territory, the share was 24 per cent.

But the latest anecdotal rush of more recent transactions is hard to assess with only farm sales to foreign interests valued at more than $244m requiring Foreign Investment Review Board approval.

Farm organisations claim this threshold is too high, leaving hundreds more rural property transactions slipping under the radar unrecorded. The federal opposition has called for the threshold above which foreign rural property sales need to be scrutinised by government to be lowered to $20m. The Greens back a $5m bar.

Further confusing the issue is that neither the ABARES nor FIRB figures differentiate between rural land acquired for the mineral wealth underneath - as in the recent case of Chinese Shenhua Watermark Coal quietly buying 43 farms for $213m around Quirindi on the NSW Liverpool Plains to access a rich coal seam - and properties bought solely for their food and farming potential.

It is a messy regulatory framework that many farm organisations and politicians want changed. Foremost is the need to establish a national register of foreign-owned land and water assets to allow greater transparency.

"The current foreign investment rules do not inspire the confidence Australians deserve. There is not enough data known on foreign ownership, there is no mechanism for tracking creeping acquisitions and the FIRB threshold is much too high," says Victorian Farmers Federation president Andrew Broad.

"Agricultural land and water is a precious resource which the federal government has a responsibility to protect before it is too late."

David Farley, chief executive of AACo, Australia's largest cattle company, agrees that foreign purchases of cattle properties across Australia's Top End are progressing apace relatively unnoticed.

But contrary to the pessimists, Farley believes overseas investment in Australian agriculture can only be a good thing, just as it was in the past, when many of Australia's northern cattle properties were developed with British, European and American money.

"Australians need to stop and have a look at how good (foreign investment) has been for the agricultural sector historically, and realise we have the same capital need for development now," Farley says.