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.”
In reality, the idea that Bill Gates was single-handedly reinventing farming — or designing cities of tomorrow — was almost entirely speculation.
“There’s a tendency in the media to personalize this,” O’Keefe says. “People want to know, “Why does Bill Gates want all this land?’ ”
But hyper-wealthy people like Gates don’t make every decision personally, O’Keefe notes. “He has very competent investment managers.”
Given that Gates is the third-richest person in the world — with an estimated net worth of $132 billion, he falls in behind Tesla founder Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos — those money managers have their hands full.
Investment guru Michael Larson, who has worked with Gates since 1994, runs the Washington-based Cascade Investment, as well as supervising the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s nearly $50 billion endowment.
“The arrangement is simple,” The Wall Street Journal wrote in a 2014 profile. “Mr. Larson makes money, and Mr. Gates gives it away.”
Larson and his team are famously tight-lipped. Cascade employees almost never speak to the press. According to the Journal, they are even discouraged from using Facebook and other social-media platforms. (Through a spokesperson, the company declined to comment for this article.)
Larson sees to it that Gates’ wealth is sensibly, even conservatively, invested. According to public records, the billionaire’s portfolio includes shares in Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate, a Coca-Cola bottling company, and the tractor manufacturer Deere & Co., among other non-flashy investments.
Larson also makes sure Gates keeps his eggs in a wide variety of baskets. His portfolio is diversified, in other words. And that’s where the land purchases come in.
Most of us imagine farmers tilling the soil that has been in their families for generations. But many farmers lease at least some of the land they cultivate. According to Bruce Sherrick, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, about 60 percent of row-crop farmland in the Midwest is leased. The landowners can include investors like Gates.
For investors who know what they’re doing, agricultural land offers financial stability in uncertain times.
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Source: NY Post