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Australia blocks farm sale to Chinese over national interest

CANBERRA, Australia » Citing national interest, the Australian government on Friday blocked a Chinese-led consortium from buying the nation’s largest private land holding, a collection of Outback cattle ranches bigger than South Korea.

Treasurer Scott Morrison said he was concerned that the land owned by a pioneering dynasty is more than 1 percent of Australia’s total land area and 2 percent of agricultural land. He also worried that the land holding was so big that it was difficult for Australian bidders to compete.

The refusal to sell to the Chinese-based Dakang Australia Holdings and Australian-listed company Australian Rural Capital is only a preliminary decision and Dakang has until Tuesday to respond. The price tag is 371 million Australian dollars ($284 million).

S. Kidman & Co. Ltd. owns 10 cattle ranches, a bull breeding stud and a feed lot covering 101,411 square kilometers (39,155 square miles) in four states. That’s an area bigger than South Korea and almost as big as the U.S. state of Virginia.

Kidman chairman John Crosby was not immediately available for comment.

The government in November blocked the first attempt to sell the Adelaide-based company founded by beef baron Sir Sidney Kidman in 1899, and now owned by his descendants.

The government ruled then that the company could not be sold to foreign investors. Part of the reason was that Kidman owns the world’s biggest cattle ranch, Anna Creek Station, which covers 23,677 square kilometers (9,142 square miles) of arid central Australia. Half of that ranch lies inside the 122,188 square kilometer (47,177 square mile) Defense Department-controlled Woomera rocket firing range. There are security concerns around foreigners owning grazing or mining leases within the world’s largest rocket range and at least two Chinese miners have been prevented from operating there.

But Anna Creek was excluded from the latest sale bid to remove that security consideration.

“The size and the significance of the portfolio combined with the impact the decision may have on broader Australian support for foreign investment in Australian agriculture must be taken into account in this case,” Morrison told reporters.

“There are not too many jurisdictions anywhere in the world where foreign acquisition of land — large holdings of this nature — would be permitted,” he added.

Foreign ownership of farmland is an increasingly sensitive issue in Australia, where there a fears that Chinese-owned farms could supply Australian-grow produce to Chinese parent companies at discount prices or refuse to sell to Australian buyers.

The Australian beef industry is emerging from years of low profitability due to drought and a strong Australian dollar that had been inflated by a mining boom that has now passed.

Despite the size of Kidman’s land holdings, its ranches are largely semi-desert and carry only an average herd of 185,000 cattle, which is a fraction of a percent of the total Australian herd.

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