The Mormon church has sparked a fierce backlash from local farmers after snapping up around 370,000 acres of prime ranch land in Nebraska, with the Utah-based religion now owning at least $2billion of agricultural terrain across the country, DailyMail.com can reveal.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), commonly known as the Mormon church, has bought more land than anyone else in the state over the past five years, according to The Flatwater Free Press.
It now owns an estimated $134million worth of agricultural land in Nebraska and is on track to surpass CNN founder Ted Turner as the single largest landowner in the state if it continues its spree at the current rate.
But the church has provoked the ire of the Nebraska Farmers Union, whose president John Hansen told DailyMail.com that its land grab was driving up prices and forcing out local farmers.
'It's not fair competition when folks bring in that much outside money and bid against local farmers and ranchers,' he said.
A sign for the Mormon-owned Deseret Cattle & Citrus Ranch in central Florida, which covers around 290,000 acres and is estimated to be worth more than $700million
The church is already thought to be the largest private landowner in Florida, after it purchased nearly 383,000 acres of timberland in 2013, adding to the 290,000 acres of ranch land it already owned in the state.
Its total agricultural holdings in the Sunshine State alone are thought to be worth a whopping $884million.
It comes amid growing scrutiny over the church's finances, with a recent report estimating it could be worth as much as $1trillion in 20 years.
The secretive institution has been blighted by a federal investigation into its finances amid accusations by whistleblowers that it is misusing its vast reserves.
Even some of its own members have sued the church, accusing it of misusing hundreds of thousands of pounds of their donations.
A Mormon agricultural empire
The extent of the church's huge agricultural portfolio can be revealed following DailyMail.com analysis of data shared by nonprofit newsroom Truth & Transparency.
Unlike other nonprofits in the US, religious organizations do not have to publicly report their income or assets.
But Truth & Transparency identified church-owned companies to build a picture of church real estate holdings across the US.
Its findings show the Mormon church now owns around $2billion worth of farmland across the US, covering around 859,000 acres, more land than Bill Gates (270,000 acres) and China (383,935) combined.
But this is likely to be a significant underestimate as it only includes corporations definitively linked back to the church.
The Widow's Mite, a research group staffed by current and former Mormons with financial backgrounds, has estimated that the church owns around $12billion of agricultural land across the US.
This applies current market values to church holdings, rather than the Truth & Transparency data which uses assessed value in public records, hence the significantly larger figure.
Truth & Transparency puts the total value of Mormon land across the US, including agricultural ecclesiastical, commercial and other real estate, at $15.7billion, whereas The Widow's Mite believes it could be as much as $102billion.
The Mormon church has previously declined to comment on The Widow's Mite report because the 'main themes' come from 'anonymous accounts'.
But it signaled its intent on becoming one of America's biggest landowners when it beat Microsoft founder Gates to buy 12,000 acres of farmland in Washington in 2021.
The land, situated next to the Columbia River in Benton County, was bought through affiliate AgriWest for $210million.
The property generates revenue through large-scale farming of potatoes and onions and cattle herding.
It also provides the landowners with access to water rights, an increasingly valuable asset in the context of climate change.
Angering the locals and accusations of secrecy
But the church's seemingly insatiable appetite for land has upset some of the farming communities it has displaced.
Hansen said the Nebraska Farmers Union had nothing against the Mormon church, but was opposed to land grabs by large, outside corporations of any description.
'[The Mormon church] bought more farmland than anybody else in the last five years in Nebraska,' he said. 'That's a big deal.
'We support independent ownership of agriculture because that's the system that maximizes the economic, social and environmental benefits.
'So whether it's large outside corporations, insurance companies, churches, investment funds, whatever it is, that are coming in and buying up farmland, that's not as economically, environmentally, or socially beneficial.
'It's also land that individual family farmers or ranchers do not have the opportunity to own.
'It tends to drive up land prices, because these folks come in with deep pockets, and they can outbid local bidders.'
It has also rekindled controversy over the transparency of church finances.
The church uses both nonprofit and for-profit subsidiary companies to manage its real estate under a variety of names, making its tentacles hard to trace.
Sam Brunson, a church member and tax law professor at Loyola University, Maryland, said the church likely started purchasing land in Nebraska through its nonprofit, Farmland Reserve Inc.
This allowed it to use a loophole in state law that once banned for-profits from owning farmland, Brunson added.
AgReserves Inc., a for-profit corporation also owned by the church, now manages the Farmland Reserve land in Nebraska after the law banning for-profit ownership was quashed.
This includes the crown jewel of Rex Ranch, which The Widow's Mite values at $990million, making it the church's most valuable piece of agricultural real estate.
Both AgReserves and Farmland Reserve pay personal and property taxes like any other business, a spokesman said.
But an unknown amount of revenue generated from the land is passed to the church itself, which doesn't have to pay tax on what is deemed a passive investment.
Brunson believes that any revenue that is not reinvested in the business is likely passed onto the church in this manner.
Complex ownership structures are a trademark of the Mormon church, which likes to keep its wealth a closely-guarded secret.
In February, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) fined the Mormon church and Ensign Peak a total of $5million for using shell companies to 'obscure' the size of its investment portfolio.
Investigators found the church 'went to great lengths' to hide $32billion in securities over nearly 20 years.
Church officials have said they 'regret mistakes made' and consider the matter closed.
Doomsday prepping or prudent investing?
There is no evidence to suggest impropriety in its business dealings in Nebraska.
But the sprawling Mormon agricultural empire raises further questions over why the church is seeking to build such a large portfolio and what it is using the proceeds for.
Farmland Reserve has said it sees its land purchases as an investment 'to generate long-term value to support the Church's religious, charitable, and humanitarian good works'.
There are also indications that it could form part of the church's 'prepping' ethos.
Mormons believe that before Jesus returns, there will be a period of war and hardship and need to be prepared.
Leaders set aside a fixed percentage of church income to build reserves for what late church President Gordon B. Hinckley called 'a possible 'rainy day'.
'Prudent management requires that this money be put to use,' he said during a church general conference in 1991.
'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.'
Brunson said produce and meat from the church's various farms either goes to a charitable grocery store for church members called the Bishop's Storehouse, or is sold on the open market for profit.
But he believes 'that the amount sold on the market dwarfs the amount that goes to the Bishop's Storehouse'.
Patrick Mason, professor of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, told DailyMail.com that the church's agricultural portfolio is primarily influenced by its desire for prudent investing, rather than preparing for Doomsday.
'Land is the one thing that they're not making any more of, so it's a good, solid investment for the church,' he said.
'It doesn't report to shareholders on short-term earnings, so it is more than happy to invest in something that in 20, 30, or even 50 years, will deliver returns.'
He added that the Mormon church has an advantage over other religious institutions, such as the Catholic church, in its ability to buy up such large swathes of land due to its centralized structure.
Each Catholic diocese 'essentially functions as its own corporation', Mason said, whereas the Mormon church 'acts as one entity'.
This allows it to pool its resources to make bigger purchases and invest strategically across the US, buying land in areas such as Nebraska and Florida, where the church traditionally does not have a large membership.
'The Catholic church has concentrated their investment in buildings, in schools and hospitals and churches,' Mason added. 'We haven't seen the same kind of agricultural purchases.'
The Widow's Mite estimates that the church's wealth currently stands at a staggering $236billion.
Investments make up around 75 percent of the church's total assets, with the rest made up of ecclesiastical buildings, welfare farms and ranches, mission properties and a smattering of small businesses, The Widow's Mite claims.
Brunson believes its interest in farmland is part of its bid to build the 'ultimate diversified portfolio'.
Misleading members or community champions?
But not all Mormons are happy with the hierarchy's investment strategy.
Movie mogul and scion to a powerful Mormon dynasty James Huntsman accused the church of 'lying' about how it has spent billions of dollars of members' donations in a bombshell interview with DailyMail.com earlier this year.
The son of billionaire Mormon philanthropist Jon Huntsman is suing the church for $5million over accusations it 'repeatedly and publicly lied' about how it was spending member donations solicited for charitable purposes.
Mormon leaders expect the rank-and-file to donate 10 percent of their income in tithing, which is put towards annual expenditure, such as building new temples.
But the surplus is invested in a portfolio of stocks, bonds, private equity and other businesses.
Huntsman alleges in his lawsuit that Mormon faithful were led to believe their contributions would only be spent on missionary activities, building temples and other charitable work.
The church has previously said his claims are 'baseless'.
But a separate lawsuit filed in October by three men who claim to have donated a combined $350,000 to the church over the past decade also claims the leadership misused member donations.
At issue in both lawsuits is whether the church's investments in stocks, bonds, real estate and agriculture reflect the wishes of its donors.
Others have reacted favorably to Mormon agriculture.
When AgReserves bought its timberland in Florida, environmental group The Conservation Fund said it was 'pleased' a buyer 'with a record of stewardship' had taken over the land, pointing to how the church had managed its 290,000 acre Deseret Ranches in central Florida since the early 1950s.
The church's Deseret Land and Livestock Ranch, which covers more than 200,000 acres in Rich County, Utah, has also been praised for developing an innovative system of rotational grazing that has increased profits and sustainability.
Brunson believes that those running the ranches are likely to be members of the church, with its employees a mix of members and locals.
Farmland Reserve has said that Rex Ranch in Nebraska is very much part of the local community.
It said more than 90 percent of its supply of feed and ranching equipment comes from Nebraska suppliers, while its workers live on the land they work and engage with the Nebraska Cattlemen's Association and Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition.
They also volunteer with local schools and at county fairs, the company said.
Hansen, however, is not convinced.
'Ownership matters,' he said. 'The Mormon church is saying that it's all okay because our folks are engaged in the local community, but they're engaged as employees, not owners.
'There's a big difference. The profits go from that local community, to where the ownership is. It is not reinvested in the community.'
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