The real reason why Bill Gates is now the US’ biggest farmland owner

The New York Post:

“Bill Gates has started laying out his plans for creating a ‘smart city’ in Phoenix, Arizona,” science-news outlet Futurism wrote. This high-tech metropolis “could be both a breeding and testing ground for futuristic technologies.” 

Late last year, Eric O’Keefe was researching a mysterious recent purchase of 14,500 acres of prime Washington state farmland. His magazine, The Land Report, tracks major land transactions and produces an annual list of the 100 biggest US landowners.

Sales of more than a thousand acres are “blue-moon events,” O’Keefe noted, so this one stood out. And Eastern Washington has some of the richest, most expensive farmland in the country. But the purchaser of record was a small, obscure company in Louisiana. 

“That immediately set off alarm bells,” O’Keefe says. 

He assigned his research team to dig a little deeper. Soon they came back with the answer: The Louisiana company was acting on behalf of Cascade Investment LLC, the secretive investment firm that manages most of the huge fortune belonging to Bill Gates.

O’Keefe knew Gates had been acquiring farmland for years, mostly through various Cascade subsidiaries. The mogul’s holdings include large tracts in Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, California, and about a dozen other states. With the Washington state acreage and other recent additions to his portfolio, O’Keefe calculated, Gates now owns at least 242,000 acres of American farmland.

“Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, has an alter ego,” O’Keefe wrote: “Farmer Bill, the guy who owns more farmland than anyone else in America.” 

The Land Report scoop made headlines. Many stories focused on Gates’ longstanding interest in climate change and sustainability and suggested those concerns might be driving the land purchases. Newsweek called him a “sustainable agriculture champion.” 

Those stories dovetailed with earlier reports about Gates’ large land acquisitions in Arizona. Most notably, in 2017, the Gates-affiliated Mt. Lemmon Holdings invested in some 40 square miles of “transitional” land on the western fringe of the Phoenix sprawl. (According to The Land Report, Gates owns about 27,000 acres of non-agricultural land, in addition to his farm holdings.) 

Some partners in the Arizona project issued a press release touting plans to build “a forward-thinking community … that embraces cutting-edge technology.” There was talk of “high-speed digital networks” and “autonomous logistics hubs.” That was all it took for many in the media to conclude that Gates was personally engineering the city of the future. 

“Bill Gates has started laying out his plans for creating a ‘smart city’ in Phoenix, Arizona,” science-news outlet Futurism wrote. This high-tech metropolis “could be both a breeding and testing ground for futuristic technologies.” 

……

According to press reports, Gates’ farmland empire is mostly managed by a Cascade subsidiary called Cottonwood Ag Management. But the details are murky, and there is no evidence that the billionaire’s farmland-buying spree is driven by anything more than a desire to have a well-diversified portfolio. 

“When Ted Turner bought his Flying D Ranch in Montana in 1989, that was his personal passion,” O’Keefe says. “Bill Gates’ land purchases look to me more like sensible long-term holds run by experienced asset managers.” 

The same logic likely holds for Gates’ Arizona acquisitions. The largest parcel, a proposed 24,800-acre development known as Belmont, might someday contain 80,000 homes, along with offices, retail, industrial and logistics facilities. At least that’s what the developers partnered with Gates’ investment group have promised. 

For now, though, all that “smart city” talk is more than a little premature. As Slate financial writer Henry Grabar concluded, the proposed town of Belmont is “not a city, nor is it ‘smart,’ nor does the Microsoft founder appear to be involved in any meaningful way.” 

Read more at The New York Post

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