It was 2017 when the purchasing really picked up. Cascade splashed more than half a billion dollars on more than 100,000 acres across nine states. The following year, a further $US171 million went on buying 14,500 acres in those idyllic Horse Heaven Hills, for a total of around $US690 million in just a few months.
That sum may only represent about half a per cent of Gates’s wealth. And 269,000 acres may only represent about a quarter of a per cent of US farmland. But it is still a staggering space to have bought in so short a time. Which begs the question: what does he want with it all?
What does he want with all that land?
The obvious answer is money. Larson, after all, was brought in to invest the Gates fortune and grow it, just as surely as a farmer is brought in to grow crops. Land, particularly rich arable land, is in ever growing demand as the globe’s population rises. As the old saying goes, “They aren’t making any more of it.” The value of UK farmland has historically increased at 6 per cent per annum, according to Savills. But after the turn of the millennium it more than trebled in value.
So when Gates was asked a fortnight ago, in one of his periodic “Ask Me Anything” sessions on the online forum Reddit “Hey Bill! Why are you buying so much farmland?” his answer seemed refreshingly straightforward. “My investment group chose to do this,” he noted. “It is not connected to climate.”
All cleared up then. Farmer Bill couldn’t care less about hoe and plough, it was all just a smart financial play.
Except, in the very next breath, Gates contradicted himself, and suggested that yes, his purchases actually were very much to do with the environmental concerns that he makes plain in his latest book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.
“The agriculture sector is important,” he wrote. “With more productive seeds we can avoid deforestation and help Africa deal with the climate difficulty they already face.”
Later on in the discussion he added: “We have lots of water. The problem is that it is expensive to desalinate it and move it to where it is needed. The cost is prohibitive for agricultural use of water. New seeds can reduce water use but some areas won’t be able to farm as much.”
All of which seems to hint at lines of research that a benevolent billionaire might want to acquire farmland to pursue. In fact, Gates’s interest in productive and sustainable ways of feeding the planet does not stop with arable.
He has long had a curiosity in producers of “synthetic” meat such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, in order to replace the carbon intensive business of rearing animals for slaughter. Such companies aim to replicate the taste and structure of meat either by replacing the protein cells of a steak, say, with plant cells, or by growing protein cells in a lab, not on a cow. From this perspective, the Gates’ Estate makes sense both as investment and personal project to save the world.
He is not, after all, the first billionaire to embark on rural empire building for purposes which cynics might write off as vanity eco-burnishing or fantasy kingdom building.
Ted Turner, the American media mogul who founded CNN, has acquired 2 million acres of land (not just farmland) on which roam one of America’s last herd of buffalo. All very noble, though critics can’t help pointing out his private ranch was once promised to Native Americans.
If Gates’s motives are to make money and progress, though, who can fault him? He certainly doesn’t have a problem giving it away. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation last year set up its own agricultural innovation project, Gates Ag One, driving innovation to help “smallholder farmers in developing countries, many of whom are women… sustainably improve crop productivity and adapt to the effects of climate change.”
It is one part of an effort that has driven Gates up the charts in another field of endeavour: philanthropy. There too, having given away $US35 billion and counting, he is very much number one.
How much land does he own?
In total, Mr Gates and his wife Melinda own 269,000 acres of land across 19 states, including 69,071 acres in Louisiana and 47,927 acres in Arkansas.
The land holdings are worth more than $US690 million ($906 million), a fraction of his estimated $US128.1 billion net worth.
It’s equivalent to more than 1000 square kilometres. The US’s agricultural land covers 896 million acres in total.
The land is owned through a private investment company, Cascade Investment, which also owns shares in artificial meat company Beyond Meat and tractor company John Deere.
Mr Gates is not alone in buying up large amounts of agricultural land. Investment from wealthy private individuals and funds surged after the financial crisis, driven by the belief that land is going to be a lucrative asset class.
He is part of a wider trend towards investment in farmland by owners attracted by growing demand and productivity gains because of new technology.
Experts say the potential financial benefits of restoring degraded land and encouraging biodiversity are tempting investors, as governments consider carbon taxes and financial rewards for boosting nature and tackling climate change.
Some investment funds also have to meet targets around carbon neutrality and other climate goals, and are buying land in an attempt to achieve this.
Mr Gates has a particular interest in agriculture and food, having been outspoken about the need to invest in technology to overcome food shortages and tackle climate change, and has argued that high-income countries should switch entirely to synthetic beef.
His charitable foundation, which is not linked to the investment fund, has also funded research into technology designed to improve farming productivity.
Why is it controversial?
Critics of Mr Gates argue that he holds too much power over food and agriculture, and is interested in enriching himself rather than helping the planet.
There are concerns that the purchase of land by corporations and billionaires accelerate the industrialisation of agriculture, depriving smallholders and family farmers of the chance to make a living from land that they may have longstanding connections to.
In a piece for the Guardian, academic and indigenous American Nick Estes, of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, argued that it is “monopolistic” and deprives ordinary people of access to land.
“The land we all live on should not be the sole property of a few. The extensive tax avoidance by these titans of industry will always far exceed their supposed charitable donations to the public.
“The ‘billionaire knows best’ mentality detracts from the deep-seated realities of colonialism and white supremacy, and it ignores those who actually know best how to use and live with the land,” he wrote.