They own the soil where the potatoes in McDonald’s french fries grow, the carrots from the world’s largest producer and the onions that Americans sauté every night for dinner. But they’re far better known for their work in tech and in trying to save the climate.
Bill and Melinda Gates, who recently announced they’re getting divorced and are dividing their assets, are deeply invested in American agriculture. The billionaire couple, in less than a decade, have accumulated more than 269,000 acres of farmland across 18 states, more than the entire acreage of New York City. The farmland was purchased through a constellation of companies that all link back to the couple’s investment group, Cascade Investments, based in Kirkland, Washington.
Data gathered by The Land Report and NBC News show that their land holdings range from 70,000 acres in north Louisiana, where their farmland grows soybeans, corn, cotton and rice, to 20,000 acres in Nebraska, where farmers grow soybeans. They bought and later sold an additional 6,000 acres in Georgia, NBC News found. In Washington, the Gateses own more than 14,000 acres of farmland that includes potato fields so massive that they are visible from space and some of which are processed into french fries for McDonald’s. And in Florida, farmers grow carrots on their property. These land holdings are separate from their previous investments in companies that support large-scale farming like Monsanto and the tractor manufacturer John Deere.
But Gates, known for his philanthropic work solving some of the world’s most pressing public health and climate problems, has suggested that he does not treat his American farmland investments as part of his broader plans to save the planet.
“My investment group chose to do this,” Bill Gates said on Reddit in March when asked about his farmland purchases while promoting his latest book, “How to Avoid A Climate Disaster.” “It is not connected to climate.” He did acknowledge that more productive farming techniques can help reduce deforestation in other parts of the world.
Though the Gateses are major owners of American farmland, the couple’s holdings only represent a fraction of the 283 million acres of farmland that is owned and rented out by nonfarmers. But that could soon change. About 40 percent of farmland is owned by seniors 65 or older, according to 2014 estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, meaning more farmland is expected to come on the market soon.
That could spell an opportunity for young farmers hoping to get their start, but for savvy investors scrambling for more places to put their money, it also represents an opportunity. Financial titans like Prudential and Hancock have divisions specifically for investors looking to make money on farmland portfolios.
The trend worries young farmers who cannot compete with the likes of Bill Gates when buying land, according to Holly Rippon-Butler, a farmer in upstate New York and the land campaigns director at the National Young Farmers Coalition.
“If you’re looking at what this means for farmers on the ground looking to access land, there’s significant competition from nonfarmers, and that really affects young farmers because it means that the price that they’re trying to compete with on the marketplace is driven and determined by people who are not dependent on a farming income,” Rippon-Butler said.
Adjusted for inflation, average farm real estate values have generally risen since 1993, growing from less than $1,500 an acre in the mid-’90s to over $3,000 an acre in 2020, according to the USDA. The agency further found that over 50 percent of cropland is rented to farmers who don’t own their land.
“The attraction that people have to investing in farmland is that it tends to be countercyclical to the stock market. It’s a hedging strategy,” said Daniel Bigelow, a professor of agricultural economics at Montana State University, who previously served as a USDA research economist. In other words, when the economy is struggling, the value of farmland generally doesn’t depreciate.
Cascade Investments declined to comment on its interest in acquiring so much American farmland, but a spokesperson for the firm, Charles V. Zehren said it is “very supportive of sustainable farming.” He pointed out that in 2020, the acreage that Bill Gates’ firm owns was all enrolled in a sustainability program. That program ensures agriculture on the land is audited to meet standards, like soil health and water management, created by the nonprofit Leading Harvest, which counts one of the subsidiaries of Gates’ investment firm as a partner.
“Leading Harvest requires farmland owners to work to continuously improve soil health, biodiversity, and water, air and crop quality on their farms as well as contribute positively to local communities, comply with regulations, and provide a safe and respectful working environment for employees,” Zehren said.
“Shell of a shell of a shell”
Public records suggest Cascade Investments has bought its farmland through a web of at least 22 limited liability shell companies across the country. These shell companies have made it difficult to find out where and how much farmland the Gateses own even for local farmers, like John S. Quarterman, a farmer and landowner who grows okra, corn, squash and other vegetables in Lowndes County on the southern edge of Georgia.