AGRICULTURE'S biggest spending stories of 2012 featured foreign money - and lots of it - including the sale of irrigation mega farm Cubbie Station on the NSW-Queensland border to a Chinese-led partnership.
Heavy with debts tipped to have exceeded $300 million, Australia's largest cotton farm's sale to the 80pc-20pc Shandong RuYi Group-Lempriere consortium was finalised in October for an undisclosed sum, with Foreign Investment Review Board consent.
Soon after large-scale Chinese farming ambitions were in the news again as property conglomerate Shanghai Zhongfu won rights to lease and develop 15,200 hectares of Ord irrigation scheme land in Western Australia's Kimberley region.
The company's plans include building a $250m sugar mill.
Chinese money also continued buying into the food processing and supply chain, including Hong Kong-listed Chevalier Group getting big horticulture produce wholesaler Moraitis Group in a deal tipped to be worth at least $200m.
With offshore buyers generating increasing public disquiet about farmland purchases the federal government has promised a foreign ownership register for agricultural land.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard told the NFF national conference the register of holdings acquired by foreign buyers would need farmer input to help set its content rules.
But while many in the farm and finance sector claim hype about overseas takeovers of Australian farmland and agribusiness companies has overwhelmed the substance of what is actually happening, others say the big overseas spenders are only just warming up.
"There's certainly a lot more big spending happening than people are aware of, but there's also a lot of chatter distorting the foreign investment picture, particularly if you're seen driving a Chinese party around a few farms," said northern NSW agent and consultant to overseas buyers, Philip Jarvis.
"Although there hasn't really been lots of transactional activity driven from overseas in the past few years, there've been bucket-loads of due diligence and background work done which will start converting to something in the coming year."
Mr Jarvis said Brazil had been the main target for global investors interested in agriculture - particularly Americans - but Australia had great appeal.
Productive land here was cheap compared to the US or Europe, and Australia had mature agricultural technology and farm management know-how.
In these fiscally uncertain times well-established off-shore investor groups and individuals wanted productive real estate to sink their private wealth into rather than bonds or other less tangible paper assets.
"Apart from attractive agribusiness fundamentals like the looming 9 billion global population to be fed, there's a notable flight of capital away from the northern hemisphere and it's coinciding with a lot of generational change on our family farms," Mr Jarvis said.
While opinion polls show Australians are uncomfortable about foreigners buying our farmland, Hassad Australia boss Tom McKeon has been at pains to point out offshore investment in farming is relatively tiny, and we need more of it.
He said the action was mostly in rural supply chains such as the grain handling, sugar milling, commodity marketing and crop protection sectors.
Mr McKeon heads the 250,000-hectare cropping and sheep operation of the Qatar government's Hassad Food Company which has spent about $500 million buying agricultural land in Australia since 2009.
In several public addresses this year he said foreign investment could be a much needed tonic for Australia's under-capitalised farm sector as it tried to overcome the impact of 10-plus years of drought, a sliding productivity spending, an ageing workforce and falling investment in agricultural education and research.
Younger recruits were badly needed in farming and offshore capital should be welcomed to promote those jobs, encourage new land management skills and lift crop and livestock productivity.