By Destiny Herbers, Flatwater Free Press
Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared in Flatwater Free Press, Nebraska’s first nonprofit, independent newsroom.
Early in the summer of 2018, a nonprofit few Nebraskans have heard of bought a 22,613-acre chunk of land in Garden County.
The next year, the nonprofit, tied to a P.O. Box in Salt Lake City, picked up another 3,331 acres of county land, buying it from a Colorado investment company.
The unknown nonprofit grabbed two more pieces of county land on the same day in March 2020, adding 10,278 acres to its mushrooming total. Then, two years later, it added still more land in this rural Nebraska county tucked between Chimney Rock and Lake McConaughy.
Before anyone really knew it, the nonprofit owned most of northern Garden County.
Not even the assessor could calculate the nonprofit’s total acres, an employee in the Garden County Assessor’s Office said. The organization simply owns too many parcels, through too many sales, for county officials to comb through the records.
“You’ll have to ask Farmland Reserve Inc.,” she said politely before hanging up the phone.
Farmland Reserve Inc., a nonprofit owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon church, has been quietly buying up ranch land in Nebraska’s Sandhills for the past three decades.
The Garden County shopping spree, coupled with more buys in four neighboring counties, made the church Nebraska’s top single buyer of land in the past five years.
The church bought a whopping 57,500 acres – double the amount of the second largest buyer– between 2018 and 2022, 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.
The Mormon Church now owns about 370,000 total acres of zoned agricultural land in Nebraska. It could soon become Nebraska’s largest landowner – passing Ted Turner, who has famously long occupied that No. 1 spot – if church representatives continue to buy land at their current pace.
How much land is 370,000 acres? It’s almost exactly the total amount of land in Douglas and Sarpy counties combined.
The church sees its land buys as a force for good, an investment in agriculture “to generate long-term value to support the Church’s religious, charitable, and humanitarian good works,” said a Farmland Reserve spokesman.
The nonprofit owned by the church also pays property taxes like any other ag producer in the state, and state and federal income taxes, too, the spokesman noted – though an unknown amount of revenue is given to the church itself, which doesn’t have to pay taxes on passive investments.
The Nebraska Farmers Union sees the church as another out-of-state corporation that arrives, drives up prices and makes buying harder for smaller farmers.
“All of the land that the Mormon church owns is land that individuals in Nebraska do not have the opportunity to own,” said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union.
Unlike other nonprofits in the U.S., religious organizations don’t have to publicly report their income or assets, including real estate. The church has never given a total accounting of their properties, in Nebraska or globally, while amassing a fortune exceeding $100 billion.
“Even for those of us who follow the church closely, we’re in the dark when it comes to specific church financial information,” said Patrick Mason, professor of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University.
But watchdog groups have made estimates by identifying church-owned companies, often through registered addresses.
An early 2020 nationwide analysis of real estate holdings connected to the Mormon church by Truth and Transparency found approximately 365,000 acres of land zoned for agriculture in Nebraska. The Flatwater Free Press analysis of county assessor records show that the church continued to add acres at a slower pace in 2021 and 2022.
Farmland Reserve Inc. confirmed that it is currently ranching on about 365,000 acres in the Sandhills. The church doesn’t plan to continue expanding its ranching operation, the spokesman said, but it may buy row crop land to lease to local farmers.
The Nebraska land is just one slice of the 1.7 million acres of American real estate the Mormon church is now estimated to own.
And that 1.7 million-acre total is most likely an undercount, said Truth and Transparency co-founder Ryan McKnight, because it only includes corporations definitively traced back to the church.
“They were able to go completely under the radar in terms of the largeness. Anecdotally people do think ‘Oh, the Mormon church, you know, owns a lot of land,’’ McKnight said. “I don’t know that people really have a grasp of how vast it is.”
Layers of Church business
The Salt Lake Tribune estimates that the church’s investment holdings exceed $160 billion. Truth and Transparency’s co-founder, Ethan Gregory Dodge said he believes it owns at least another $100 billion in U.S. real estate.
Combined, the church’s estimated wealth equals the net worth of roughly two Warren Buffetts.
The church uses both nonprofit and for-profit subsidiary corporations to manage its business operations under a variety of names.
Historically, the church has had a sprawling and complicated corporate structure. Sam Brunson, professor of nonprofit tax law Loyola University Chicago School of Law and member of the church, said that as best he can tell, a description of the structure is not public anywhere.
“The church is remarkably untransparent about its finances,” Brunson said.
The church likely originally purchased land in Nebraska through its nonprofit, Farmland Reserve Inc., to use a loophole in a Nebraska law that once banned for-profit corporations – but not nonprofits – from owning farmland in Nebraska, Brunson said.
Why did that law, Initiative 300, allow the Mormon church such an easy workaround?
“You can only slay so many dragons with one swing of the sword,” said Hansen, who helped put Initiative 300 into place.
Initiative 300 was ruled unconstitutional in 2007. By that point, the church had already purchased more than 200,000 acres of Nebraska ag land under Farmland Reserve Inc.
AgReserves Inc., a for-profit corporation also owned by the church, now manages ranches on Farmland Reserve land in Nebraska.
What are they doing with all of that land?
Rex Ranch, AgReserves’ sprawling 365,000-acre cow-calf operation, covers most of northern Garden County and stretches through the Sandhills into Grant, Hooker, Morrill and Sheridan counties.
Despite its unusual size, the ranch has gone largely unnoticed by Nebraskans in the 30-plus years it’s been owned by the church.
Dale Bills, a spokesman for Farmland Reserve, said that the Rex, and its employees, are very much a part of the local community. The Rex’s employees live on the land they work and regularly participate in the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Association and Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition.
AgReserves hires ranch hands to work at Rex Ranch through public job postings. The church generally wants to be well integrated in the communities where it operates, said Mason, the Utah State University professor.
Farmland Reserve did not share specific details about staffing at Rex Ranch, but Mason said he would be “not at all surprised if all of the management are LDS (church members).”
Austin Anderson, Rex Ranch’s current general manager, previously worked at another AgReserves cattle ranch in Florida. His brother Tyrell, who attended the church’s Brigham Young University, manages Ted Turner’s Blue Creek Ranch nearby.
Rex Ranch sources more than 90% of its purchases for feed, tools, equipment, and other ranching inputs from local suppliers, Bills said. Employees also volunteer with local schools, nearby ranches, 4-H clubs and at county fairs.
AgReserves also operates the more widely known Deseret Ranches of Florida, and is believed to be Florida’s largest private landowner. Other operations span more than 30 states, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Mexico and the United Kingdom.
Produce and meat from the church’s various farms go in two directions, Brunson said: to a charitable grocery store for church members called the Bishop’s Storehouse, or to the open market where they’re sold for profit.
Members of the church can access food assistance at the Bishop’s Storehouse, but members of the public must get permission from the individual presiding bishop to receive food.
“The church’s sort of cascading PR message that they would give out on why they own so much farmland is ‘Oh, it’s about our principle of self-sufficiency,’” said Truth and Transparency’s McKnight.
AgReserves primarily sells products in the U.S. and abroad. On its website, it describes itself as “a preeminent supplier of premium-quality nuts and olive oil” and “meeting the demand of today’s beef consumers.”
So does the Church pay taxes?
The short answer: Yes. Sort of.
The church’s agriculture businesses pay both income and property taxes, though the structure is complicated.
“We pay both real property taxes and personal property taxes … just like any other ag producer or rancher,” said Bills, spokesman for Farmland Reserve.
In Nebraska, the structure of corporations seems to work like this: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints owns Farmland Reserve Inc., which owns the land ranched by AgReserves Inc.
When AgReserves Inc. makes profit ranching it pays income taxes like a normal company.
Then AgReserves pays rent to Farmland Reserve Inc, which pays tax on a portion of that income.
But AgReserves also sends an unknown amount of profits directly to the church. The church doesn’t pay income taxes on that money because it is considered passive investment income.
Religious organizations are exempt from paying property taxes on land used directly for their non-profit mission, Brunson said. The church’s properties that hold temples, for example, are not taxed.
But the church’s ag land isn’t eligible for that religious tax exemption since it’s a business run by a for-profit corporation. It’s paying property taxes on its ag land in all five Nebraska counties, county officials confirmed.
But there’s still a big difference between the Mormon church’s agricultural arm owning Nebraska ranch land versus a small rancher owning it, Hansen said.
“As they say, in real estate, location, location, location. In the case of agriculture, it’s ownership, ownership, ownership and ownership matters,” Hansen said. “Ownership creates different kinds of relationships with the land, and how the land is thought of and managed.”
The Nebraska Farmers Union opposes the church’s investment into farmland and ranch land, Hansen said, as it opposes all outside investor ownership of Nebraska ag land.
“We’re not going after the Mormon church specifically,” Hansen said. “We’d go after the Catholics or the Methodists if they were doing exactly the same thing.”
In fact, the Mormon church isn’t the only religious organization buying Nebraska land. Divine Word Missionaries Inc, the largest missionary order of the Catholic Church, also appears in the Flatwater Free Press’s Top 100 Buyers by Acre list at No. 93, having purchased 2,833 acres of Nebraska farmland in the past five years.
Former church president Gordon B. Hinckley explained its farming plans in the 1991 State of the Church. “We have felt that good farms, over a long period, represent a safe investment where the assets of the Church may be preserved and enhanced, while at the same time they are available as an agricultural resource to feed people should there come a time of need,” Hinckley said.
The church’s focus on ranching comes down to two factors, a good economic investment and preparedness for upheaval, said Betsy Gaines Quammen, historian and author of “American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God and Public Lands in the West.”
Stockpiling food and resources to be prepared for upheaval before a religious event is a central part of Mormon theology, Quammen said.
“Mormons are really big on being prepared for a disaster,” said Dodge, who was raised Mormon. “They believe that before Christ comes, there’s going to be a lot of disasters … and they would advise their members to have a year’s worth of food storage. I still have six months worth.”
Farmers and ranchers were virtuous characters throughout Mormon history, Quammen said. There’s a mystique around working the land, and many members of the church view agriculture as a noble pursuit.
“The church has people with the expertise to run and manage ranches, because they’ve been doing it for a long time,” Brunson said.
Working the land was a form of worship for early Latter-day Saints, Mason said. They believed that God entrusted the Earth to humans to develop, and turning wilderness into productive land is a religious duty.
AgReserves also prioritizes sustainable management of resources, Bills said. Ranch managers work with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to monitor range health and protect wildlife habitat.
“We are unconditionally committed to the humane treatment and care of our cattle because it’s the right thing to do. Humane treatment of all animals on our ranch is a reflection of our level of humanity,” Bills said.
Land ownership is also a solid long-term investment strategy, Mason said. Church leadership is not bound to shareholders or quarterly reports, and they see returns in 50 years as just as important as the next five.
“Currently, we aren’t looking to expand our ranching operations,” Bills said. “Any future investment we may make in Nebraska would be row crop land for lease to local farmers.”
Over the past five years though, the church has continued to buy land at a higher rate than any other organization in Nebraska. Mason said he expects the church “won’t be stopping anytime soon.”
Flatwater Free Press reporter Yanqi Xu contributed to the data analysis tied to this story.