Farmers leave land, foreign buyers on the rise
Foreign investors have swooped on South Australian farms, owning the highest rate of agricultural land of any state.
New figures by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show more than 12 per cent of land used for agriculture in SA is owned by foreign interests.
This compares to 0.8 per cent in Victoria, 2.7 per cent in NSW, 5.6 per cent in Tasmania, 8.5 per cent in WA, and 11.8 per cent in Queensland.
The figures come as The Advertiser can reveal low confidence among farmers has shut down more than 1000 farm businesses throughout SA in the past three years.
The lack of confidence and a lack of scrutiny by the Foreign Investment Review Board over farm land sales has been blamed for SA's high rate of foreign land ownership, which is taking millions of dollars offshore.
The Northern Territory has the highest foreign ownership rate at 24 per cent.
NATIONAL Farmers' Federation chief executive Matt Linnegar said the high SA figure was "a bit surprising".
"I don't think we need to be worried," he said. "But I think those involved in agriculture in South Australia would want to understand the context."
South Australian Farmers Federation president Peter White was concerned at the figures, which was the first study of its kind for almost 30 years.
"If you're an Australian wanting to invest in China, any investment of $1 or more would be scrutinised, but that's not the case here," he said.
"We've been looking at this issue (foreign ownership) for a very long time. Even though research and development in this country is 30 years behind where it should be, we remain leaders in agriculture.
"Foreign investors want to take advantage of that."
Mr White said farming numbers in the state "have been devastated in recent years".
"While in SA it was pretty good last year, all that did for most was to pay a few bills," he said. "Farmers are at their lowest point of how much confidence they have in their futures since coming out of the drought ... the major reason for that relates to political policies and opinions."
SA Senator Nick Xenophon said the Government was only highlighting foreign ownership data in its favour. "What they should actually be doing is looking at the figures which show that 45 million ha of Australia's prime agricultural land is foreign owned," he said.
Mr Xenophon and Greens Senator Christine Milne recently introduced a Bill calling for the lowering of the current $231 million threshold before foreign investments need to be reviewed. The Bill reflects existing legislation in New Zealand, and would need potential investments worth more than $5 million to be reviewed.
Mr Xenophon said there are concerns that significant purchases below the current threshold can be made without the government's knowledge.
Senator Milne said: "The lack of available information about foreign investment is of key concern because it restricts Government's ability to have an informed public policy framework to address longer-term issues. The way foreign ownership is recorded in this country has been woeful, and for that reason these statistics just may be the tip of the iceberg," she said.
The ABS report also shows 199 agricultural businesses in SA were foreign-owned - with about 13,600 having domestic ownership. More work is being undertaken by Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) to study the issue.
ABARES figures released recently showed 949 farm businesses in SA ceased to operate between 2008 and 2010 and the total land used in the state for agricultural production fell by 1,328,635 ha.
Just 1.5 per cent of water entitlements used for agriculture in SA are foreign-owned.
It is understood the Government is now looking at setting up a public register recording foreign ownership of land.
Nationally, the data shows that 99 per cent of Australian agricultural businesses are locally owned along with almost 89 per cent of agricultural land and 91 per cent of water entitlements for agriculture.
Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten said yesterday: "At last we have some hard data about the true extent of foreign ownership of agricultural businesses, land and water."
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