Pacific

Australian-Chinese consortium wins bid for cattle empire

The Australian government on Friday approved the sale of the nation's largest cattle empire to Australia's richest woman and her Chinese business partner, ending a drawn-out battle over foreign ownership of farmland.

The country's largest private landholding, S. Kidman & Co. Ltd., will be acquired by Outback Beef, an Australia-China consortium majority owned by billionaire Gina Rinehart, with a 33 percent stake held by Shanghai CRED Real Estate Stock Co. Ltd., said Treasurer Scott Morrison.

In May, the government said that the collection of cattle ranches covering more than 101,000 square kilometers (39,000 square miles) in four states would never be sold to foreign interests, after vetoing a Chinese-led bid.

Foreign ownership of farmland is a thorny issue in Australia, where many worry that Chinese-owned farms could supply Australian-grown produce to Chinese parent companies at discount prices or refuse to sell to Australian buyers.

In October, Rinehart said she was willing to pay the entire 386.5 million Australian dollars ($288 million) for the land if regulators blocked her Chinese partner.

Under the proposal approved Friday, Rinehart's company, Hancock Prospecting Pty. Ltd., would control the board and day-to-day operations of the business, Morrison said in a statement.

The biggest property in the empire will be acquired by a neighboring farming family. That ranch lies partially inside a vast Defense Department-controlled rocket firing range, which had raised security concerns about foreigners owning leases there. Morrison said removing the ranch from Outback Beef's control had mitigated those concerns.

"The treasurer's approach to the sale of Kidman enabled a local Australian company to pay a fair market price and retain Kidman in Australian control," Rinehart said in a statement.

The cattle empire was founded by beef baron Sir Sidney Kidman in 1899. The properties cover an area bigger than South Korea and almost the size of the U.S. state of Virginia.