Bill Gates has quietly become the United States’ largest farmland owner. And he’s not the only one who’s been on a farmland shopping spree. Why are the rich buying up large swathes of land?
Philanthrocapitalist Bill also has his eye on farming in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. In January 2020, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced it was creating a non-profit entity called Gates Ag One that aims to “speed up efforts to provide smallholder farmers in developing countries … with access to the affordable tools and innovations they need to sustainably improve crop productivity and adapt to the effects of climate change.”
The announcement came shortly before the failure of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (“AGRA”) – founded in 2006 by The Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation – and the ensuing debt trap for both African farmers and governments was becoming apparent. So, why is Gates investing in Sub-Saharan Africa farming? And will Africans trust him?
There are over two million individual farms in the US. That is the equivalent of almost 900 million acres of arable land used for industry. The average size of a farm is about 444 acres.
Around 97% of American farms are small and medium-sized family-owned operations. Corporations own 3% and rent land or buy many of the crops owned by the 97%. In addition, over 250,000 farms are so-called factory farms owned, rented, or co-opted by corporations.
Starting in the mid-1990s, Bill and Melinda Gates wanted to diversify their investment portfolio to be less reliant on their stake in Microsoft. Over the past decades, the Gates have been buying up a lot of farmland, as well as a range of other asset classes, Farmfolio wrote.
In January 2021 The Land Report ranked Bill Gates as America’s top farmland owner. The Land Report tracks major land transactions and produces an annual list of the 100 biggest US landowners. Eric O’Keefe wrote, “Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, has an alter ego: Farmer Bill, the guy who owns more farmland than anyone else in America.”
Much of the Gates’ fortune is invested through a company called Cascade Investment LLC, so that would be the entity that now owns all that farmland. One of the many entities within those investments is Cottonwood Ag Management.
This subsidiary is an inaugural member of the 13-member Sustainable Agriculture Working Group of Leading Harvest, a sustainable agriculture organisation. It has launched a new Farmland Management Standard “…created by and for all stakeholders across the agricultural value chain – from farmland owners to companies to communities” to advance agriculture from the ground up, sustainably.
Bill and Melinda Gates divorced in 2021. The divorce has brought to light landholdings that they own, the most extensive holdings specifically in Louisiana, Arkansas, Nebraska and Arizona.
The Gates own over 268,000 acres of farmland diversified in over 19 states. Gates’ private American farmlands are worth an estimated $690 million.