They personal the soil the place the potatoes in McDonald’s french fries develop, the carrots from the world’s largest producer and the onions that Americans sauté each night time for dinner. But they’re much better identified for his or her work in tech and in attempting to save lots of the local weather.
Bill and Melinda Gates, who lately introduced they’re getting divorced and are dividing their property, are deeply invested in American agriculture. The billionaire couple, in lower than a decade, have accrued greater than 269,000 acres of farmland throughout 18 states, greater than the total acreage of New York City. The farmland was bought by way of a constellation of firms that all hyperlink again to the couple’s funding group, Cascade Investments, primarily based in Kirkland, Washington.
Data gathered by The Land Report and NBC News present that their land holdings vary from 70,000 acres in north Louisiana, the place their farmland grows soybeans, corn, cotton and rice, to 20,000 acres in Nebraska, the place farmers develop soybeans. They purchased and later offered a further 6,000 acres in Georgia, NBC News discovered. In Washington, the Gateses personal greater than 14,000 acres of farmland that contains potato fields so huge that they’re seen from house and a few of that are processed into french fries for McDonald’s. And in Florida, farmers develop carrots on their property. These land holdings are separate from their earlier investments in firms that help large-scale farming like Monsanto and the tractor producer John Deere.
But Gates, identified for his philanthropic work fixing some of the world’s most urgent public well being and local weather issues, has steered that he doesn’t deal with his American farmland investments as half of his broader plans to save lots of the planet.
“My investment group chose to do this,” Bill Gates stated on Reddit in March when asked about his farmland purchases whereas selling his newest e book, “How to Avoid A Climate Disaster.” “It is not connected to climate.” He did acknowledge that extra productive farming methods may also help cut back deforestation in different components of the world.
Though the Gateses are main house owners of American farmland, the couple’s holdings solely signify a fraction of the 283 million acres of farmland that is owned and rented out by nonfarmers. But that might quickly change. About 40 p.c of farmland is owned by seniors 65 or older, in line with 2014 estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which means extra farmland is anticipated to come on the market quickly.
That might spell a chance for younger farmers hoping to get their begin, however for savvy traders scrambling for extra locations to place their cash, it additionally represents a chance. Financial titans like Prudential and Hancock have divisions particularly for traders seeking to make cash on farmland portfolios.
The development worries younger farmers who can’t compete with the likes of Bill Gates when shopping for land, in line with 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 stated.
Adjusted for inflation, common farm actual property values have typically risen since 1993, rising from lower than $1,500 an acre in the mid-’90s to over $3,000 an acre in 2020, according to the USDA. The company further found that over 50 p.c of cropland is rented to farmers who don’t personal 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,” stated Daniel Bigelow, a professor of agricultural economics at Montana State University, who beforehand served as a USDA analysis economist. In different phrases, when the economic system is struggling, the worth of farmland typically doesn’t depreciate.
Cascade Investments declined to touch upon its curiosity in buying a lot American farmland, however a spokesperson for the agency, Charles V. Zehren stated it’s “very supportive of sustainable farming.” He identified that in 2020, the acreage that Bill Gates’ agency owns was all enrolled in a sustainability program. That program ensures agriculture on the land is audited to fulfill requirements, like soil well being and water administration, created by the nonprofit Leading Harvest, which counts one of the subsidiaries of Gates’ funding agency as a associate.
“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 stated.
“Shell of a shell of a shell”
Public information counsel Cascade Investments has purchased its farmland by way of an online of no less than 22 restricted legal responsibility shell firms throughout the nation. These shell firms have made it tough to search out out the place and the way a lot farmland the Gateses personal even for native farmers, like John S. Quarterman, a farmer and landowner who grows okra, corn, squash and different greens in Lowndes County on the southern edge of Georgia.
That’s the place the Gateses started shopping for land in 2013 by way of two restricted legal responsibility firms registered to an deal with in Kirkland by Derek Yurosek, then head of agriculture operations for Cascade.
When Quarterman first heard about Gates’ agency shopping for land in the space, he started digging by way of native property information, linking addresses and enterprise information from registered house owners to Kirkland-based firms, till he was in a position to piece collectively that the firms shopping for a number of tracts of land in the Suwannee River Basin had been all a “shell of a shell of a shell company investing for Bill Gates.” NBC News’ independently confirmed that there have been, in reality, shell firms tracing again to Gates’ agency that bought 6,021 acres throughout 4 counties in Georgia.
In Georgia and Florida, NBC News independently confirmed by way of analysis of property information that the Gateses’ funding agency owns greater than 7,000 acres by way of two restricted legal responsibility firms, Lakeland Sands and Lakeland Sands Florida, LLC. Both firms had been based in 2012 with the similar deal with as Cascade Investments in Kirkland, which later modified its mailing deal with to a Louisiana publish workplace field assigned to Oak River Farms, one other subsidiary of Cascade.
NBC News additionally discovered that one other 6,500 acres in north Florida are owned by yet one more firm, Suwannee River Terra, which was additionally began with an deal with in Kirkland and an electronic mail deal with from the Bill and Melinda Gates Investment Firm, which is now registered to the present chief counsel of Oak River Farms with a mailing deal with in Kansas, in line with property information.
In each state the place the Gateses personal land, a tangled net of regionally registered restricted legal responsibility firms observe. While these firms don’t explicitly identify Cascade Investments as the proprietor of their public information, they do share the deal with of Cascade in Kirkland, Washington, or the deal with of a Cascade subsidiary, checklist the names of Cascade staff who registered the firms and generally even electronic mail addresses from the Bill and Melinda Gates Investment Group.
But some farmers whose land is adjoining to that of the Gateses have expressed disappointment that regardless of the couple’s wealth, they haven’t completed extra to protect the setting. Quarterman additionally serves as the Suwannee Riverkeeper and advocates for conservation of the intricate community of springs and rivers in the area, the place water from the swamps of Georgia circulate into Florida earlier than they launch into the Gulf of Mexico. He stated that that is the place massive tracts of wealthy farmland is used to boost livestock and develop many of the greens that find yourself in grocery aisles up and down the East Coast.
All that farming has led to massive water withdrawals from Florida’s aquifer system and requires fertilizer, which leaches by way of the floor into waterways, emptying nitrogen that has led to damaging algae blooms and extreme loss of fish and marsh habitats.
He hoped Gates would have invested in numerous farming methods that might assist flip round the ecological damages from large agriculture.
“Well, you’d think, if you’re looking for somebody with enough capital to try that, he would go first. Right? But he didn’t,” Quarterman stated. “He by no means did something that totally different from earlier than he acquired right here and what different farmers had been doing close by.”
Quarterman guessed that may be because Bill Gates isn’t the one doing the farming. He’s the landlord, or rather, the companies owned by his investment firm are the landlords. And not all the renters are local.
But Zehren of Cascade noted that the firm has been working in Florida and elsewhere to promote ecologically conscious agriculture and that it plans to continue to evaluate its farmland portfolio to improve its overall sustainability.
“In enrolling in Leading Harvest, Cascade has implemented new initiatives on its farmland holdings ranging from adding additional pollinator habitat in Nebraska to planting wildlife-friendly trees on dry pivot corners in Florida to hosting grain bin safety rescue training for the local community in Louisiana to converting numerous diesel power units to electric to reduce carbon output, to name a few,” Zheren said.
Carrots, onions and french fries
A survey of the Gateses’ farmland holdings shows that a broad range of the vegetables that Americans eat can be traced back to his land and that some of this land has also been owned by other billionaires. Starting in 2012, Gates’ investment firm began buying family farms in South Georgia. One of those farms, Stanley Farms, specialized in Vidalia onions, and another, Coggins Farms, focused on growing carrots. In 2014, Cascade Investments combined both of those companies and the land into Generations Farms, which continued to grow vegetables.
Some of that land, including nearly 300 acres, was sold in 2019 to the California-based Grimmway Farms, the world’s largest carrot producer. Another 5,500 acres was sold to Generation Land Georgia, a company that shares an address with Miami-based Optimum Agriculture, which bought Generations Farms in 2019. Members of the Stanley family now work for Generations.
In north Louisiana, the Gateses’ investment firm owns about 70,000 acres of land through at least three other shell companies. There farmers primarily grow soybeans, rice, corn and cotton. One of the largest plots of land owned by a subsidiary of the Gateses’ investment arm in Louisiana, Angelina Plantation, was beforehand owned by former WorldCom CEO Bernard Ebbers, who died final yr, a month after being launched from jail. That land is now largely rented out to varied farmers.
Along the Columbia River border between Washington and Oregon, the Gateses bought 100 Circles Farm, a 14,500-acre plot of land, for $171 million in 2018, in line with property and enterprise information. There, on Gates’ parcels, an industrial farm grows potatoes for McDonald’s french fries. Cascade declined to touch upon its particular land holdings.
But farmer advocates say the Gateses’ large-scale farm purchases don’t make room for smaller farmers to interrupt into the market. After all, few can out-bid Bill Gates.
“Farmers just aren’t owning the assets anymore. Someone else is owning that asset, whether it’s rented equipment or land. Someone else is building that equity on their back,” stated Johnathan Hladik, the coverage director at the Center for Rural Affairs, who can also be a farmer in Nebraska. “When Bill Gates, or whatever other investment arm owns the land, a farmer still needs to farm it. But they’re just renting it. So if now the best farmers can do if you want to stay in farming is rent this land, you’re not going to get the benefits that come with land ownership.”
While the Gateses are finest identified for his or her philanthropic work tackling large-scale societal issues, like funding the coronavirus vaccine and controlling malaria by way of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, they’ve additionally invested in some firms rethinking meals manufacturing and have endorsed the use of genetically modified seeds as one solution to enhance farming productiveness and feed extra folks globally.
In 2010 the Gates Foundation Trust invested about $23 million in Monsanto, the genetically modified seed and chemical firm, although it offered its shares the subsequent yr following outcry from environmental teams.
Bill Gates was additionally an early investor in fake-meat firms aiming to fight the environmental harms of elevating livestock by creating extra convincing, plant-based options. He backed Impossible Foods, which depends on genetically modified soybeans, and likewise held shares of Beyond Meat by way of the Bill and Melinda Gates’ Foundation Trust, although SEC filings present these shares had been offered in 2019. In May, Bill Gates additionally transferred about $850 million in shares of the agricultural equipment firm John Deere to his spouse after the two shared publicly their plans to divorce.
Besides the enrollment of their landholdings in Leading Harvest, the Gates Foundation in 2020 additionally created an agricultural nonprofit, Gates Ag One, which focuses on bringing reasonably priced options to small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia to enhance crop productiveness. The Gates Foundation stated in a press release that its agriculture efforts don’t prolong to farming in the U.S.
But these engaged on tasks with each traders and farmers to create ecologically sustainable farming strategies and help various and deprived farming communities say rethinking agriculture and dealing to avert a local weather disaster go hand in hand. They add it can take these with massive parcels of land, like the Gateses’ U.S. farmland holdings, to do it.
“We know that one of the best ways to sequester carbon is through the soil. And that it’s going to take big swaths of land, like what Bill Gates has taken, to do that,” stated Konda Mason, the founder and president of Jubilee Justice and Potlikker Capital, which funds and helps regenerative agriculture tasks owned by folks of coloration.
Mason notes that attempting to attract laborious traces between one’s philanthropic work and one’s investments doesn’t work.
“Now you have a foundation where the mission on one side is to save the world and to do all these wonderful things surrounding climate, and on the other side they’re investing in the exact same things that are causing the harm that the mission side is trying to protect,” Mason stated. “It makes no sense.”