The Largest Owners of American Farmland Are... Bill and Melinda Gates?

Farmland is apparently a good investment, and mass private ownership of it may be more common than you think.

Rich people owning the land is one of the oldest tropes in the book—just ask any king or queen. But though we'd like to imagine we've moved on from fiefdoms and sharecropping, a recent report suggests that ownership of land by the wealthy is as on-the-nose as ever: According to The Land Report, the number one private owners of farmland in America are none other than Bill and Melinda Gates.

Farmland is apparently a good investment: In 2018, Forbes explained that farmland has yielded returns of at least 10 percent for nearly 50 years. (Those are Madoff Ponzi scheme kind of numbers.) And yet, unlike gold or bitcoin, farmland is a lot more than just an investment: It can be someone's livelihood. And the Gates reportedly own 242,000 acres (about a third of the size of Rhode Island) of farmland across as many as 18 states—with the biggest holdings in Louisiana and Arkansas.

Bill Gates and Melinda Gates at the Goalkeepers event on September 26, 2018, in New York. LUDOVIC MARIN / Contributor/Getty Images

According to Modern Farmer, as of 2019, about 40 percent of American farmland is rented, not owned—a system that can divert subsidies to the landowners instead of the actual farmers, and one that also means owners are reaping the benefits of their land investment regardless of what their farmers sow. Author Dan Nosowitz writes that this emphasis on ownership means "Farmland in this sense isn't about the 'farm.' It's about the 'land.'"

However, through their Gates Foundation, Bill and Melinda have dedicated much of their lives to philanthropy. So is there an altruistic angle to their investment? As The Land Report explains, it's hard to tell: The farmland is technically owned by separate entities indirectly tied to the Gates, including largely through a company called Cascade Investment. "A spokesman for Cascade Investment declined to comment on any of the details associated with these transactions or the Gateses' holdings, other than to say that Cascade is very supportive of sustainable farming," journalist Eric O'Keefe wrote. He added that a Cascade-owned entity has backed up this assertion by joining one of The Land Report's own sustainability initiatives.

And as MarketWatch points out, "agriculture development" is one of the many, many initiatives the Gates Foundation is active in—though their websites states that the focus is on Africa and Asia, not America. Regardless, overall, it's unlikely 242,000 acres of farmland is all being used in any one specific way anyway.

Instead, a more sensible takeaway would probably be to not focus on Bill Gates at all. Sure, he's at the top of the list, but it's a list. Second and third on that list are the Offutt family and Stewart & Lynda Resnick, both of whom own 190,000 acres of farmland respectively, followed by the Fanjul and Boswell families, both of whom have 150,000 acres. Private ownership of large amounts of farmland may be more common than you realize—and it's not just one of the best-known billionaires in the world that's been buying.

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