No one knows who’s behind the firm that now surrounds the Solano County military facility.
Unexplained land purchases surrounding Travis Air Force Base on three sides have raised national security fears among U.S. officials. U.S. Department of Defense / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Of the approximately 100 million acres of land that make up the state of California, 43 million are used for agriculture. Of that expansive acreage, about 2.8 percent is owned by foreign investors. That’s actually less than the 50-state share of 3.1 percent, according to a United States Department of Agriculture report from December 2021.
Domestic institutional investors have also become players in the farmland investment game over the past two decades. Between 2010 and 2020, institutional investors—a category that includes banks, hedge funds, university endowments, pension funds and other financial entities—beefed up their holdings in agricultural land by a factor of almost five. By October 2020 these financial behemoths had $11.7 billion invested in farmland.
Flannery Associates now owns about 52,000 acres in the county—including 20 parcels that directly abut Travis Air Force Base, purchases that raised the suspicions of the federal government.
So it should not have been too surprising that, in 2018, a single company from out of state—registered in Delaware, to be specific—started buying up parcels of land in Solano County. But this buying spree did, in fact, raise suspicions about its true purpose because not only was the company, Flannery Associates, anonymous except for the lawyers who handled its paperwork, but because of where it was scooping up land.
Mystery Company Now Surrounds Travis Air Force Base
The Flannery Associates land now surrounds Travis Air Force Base, home to the largest air mobility operation in the U.S. military, on three sides, according to land records analyzed by the Wall Street Journal.
An air mobility unit provides refueling and transport services to the Air Force and plays a vital role in national security. Most recently, Travis Air Force base provided transportation for U.S. military aid to Ukraine as that country attempts to resist a Russian invasion.
The Delaware firm bought more than 300 parcels of land in Solano County, shelling out more than $800 million to scoop up that land, according to the Journal investigation. Flannery Associates now owns about 52,000 acres in the county—including 20 parcels that directly abut Travis Air Force Base, purchases that raised the suspicions of the federal government.
Flannery Associates lawyers claim that the land buys are not, in fact, “motivated by the proximity to Travis Air Force Base.” But officials remain skeptical.
Rep. John Garamendi, a Democrat who represents California’s 8th congressional district, which includes the Air Force base, has said that he suspects Chinese interests are behind the land-buying firm, though through its lawyers Flannery told Solano County that it is 97 percent U.S.-owned with the other 3 percent coming from the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Investors from the U.K. own the fifth-most U.S. agricultural land of investors from any country, in terms of total acres owned. Ireland ranks 10th. China is not in the top 10. But measured by the monetary value of land owned, China comes in 10th with $2 billion invested.
According to the Journal report, both the Air Force and the U.S. Treasury Department are currently investigating Flannery Associates, but neither have been able to figure out who owns the company. Under Delaware law, corporations may keep the identities of their owners and officers hidden from the public.
What Does Flannery Associates Want?
Figuring out who is behind the land purchases, beyond a corporate name, has so far stumped even government investigators. Equally unclear is what the company wants with land surrounding Travis Air Force Base.
According to the Journal report, the Flannery Associates lawyers claim that the land buys are not, in fact, “motivated by the proximity to Travis Air Force Base.” But officials remain skeptical.
“The fact that they chose to buy all three sides of the Travis Air Force Base even raises immediate questions about national security. So is this Chinese money? We don’t know,” Garmendi told the cable news network NewsNation. “But we do know that the Chinese money was being used in North Dakota and we have a very deep suspicion, given the amount of money, given the lack of attention to values that they simply want to acquire all of this land.”
“The majority of the land they’re purchasing is dry farmland. I don’t see where that land can turn a profit to make it worth almost a billion dollars in investment.”
SOLANO COUNTY SUPERVISOR MITCH MASHBURN
By “North Dakota” Garamendi was referring to the attempted purchase of land near an Air Force Base in Grand Forks, N.D., by the Chinese company Fufeng USA. The company started its moves to acquire the land in 2021. The effort ended in January of 2023 with a declaration by the assistant secretary of the Air Force, Andrew P. Hunter, that the China-backed project “presents a significant threat to national security with both near- and long-term risks of significant impacts to our operations in the area.”
Fufeng USA said it planned to build a corn milling plant on the land, situated about 15 miles from the Air Force base. The company denied that it planned to use the corn plant as an espionage outpost. Cirrus Design, an aircraft manufacturer that since 2011 has been owned by the Chinese aviation firm CAIGA, already has a plant in Grand Forks.
In his declaration, Hunter did not specify why the Flannery Associates land purchases posed a “significant threat to national security.” Nor has Garamendi said why he has cause to suspect that the Delaware company is connected to China. At the same time, where the firm got nearly $1 billion to buy the Solano County land also remains a mystery.
“The majority of the land they’re purchasing is dry farmland,” Solano County Supervisor Mitch Mashburn told the Journal. “I don’t see where that land can turn a profit to make it worth almost a billion dollars in investment.”
Flannery itself, in public filings, has offered shifting explanations of what it plans to do with its near-billion-dollar land buy. In 2019 a lawyer representing the firm said that it would be used for “new types of crops or orchards,” though not cannabis, according to the Journal report.
But in May of 2023, in court documents, Flannery Associates said that it may use the land for renewable energy projects.