He is famous for his sensible office garb and digitally-amassed fortune, rather than rugged overalls and a weathered hand on the plough.
But the pioneer spirit, it turns out, burns bright in Bill Gates. Late in life, the sultan of software, emperor of intangibles, has discovered what the aristocracy have known for a thousand years: nothing beats land.
There is a certain irony, of course, about Gates (65), becoming the USA’s biggest private owner of farmland, which American publication The Land Report recently declared him to be. Here is the epitome of elite coastal America, born in liberal Seattle on the Pacific, educated (until he dropped out) at Harvard, investing financially and emotionally in the rural “fly-over” states between, swapping ones and zeros for soil and sod.
His taste for the tilth knows few rivals, now that he has put together a reported portfolio of prime farmland amounting to 269,000 acres — 6,000 more than the farmland held by Queen Elizabeth in the Crown Estate.
There are romantically named holdings on the West coast, close to Gates’ home country up in Washington state, places like the Horse Heaven Hills, where the prized soil can change hands for $15,000 (£10,800) an acre and even the local town is called Richland. But most of his new acquired land is elsewhere, spread across 19 states, with the biggest lots in places the tech titan, worth more than $120bn, is perhaps less familiar with — Louisiana, Arkansas and Arizona.
They are the fruit of a financial strategy going back a quarter of a century to the day, in 1994, when Gates decided to diversify his fortune, then concentrated in a 45pc stake in the company with which his name is synonymous: Microsoft.
The man he brought in to run his investments was a bond manager called Michael Larson. And it has been under Larson’s leadership, via a business called Cascade Investment, that Gates has gone from coastal techie to landed gentry.
He may not have started wearing red trousers; nor is his hallway draped in wet Labradors (though he does profess love for his dogs, Oreo and Nilla). But the cold hard facts speak for themselves: in the first two decades of Larson’s stewardship, Gates acquired more than 100,000 acres of land across America.
That may have been eye-popping enough. But the last few years have made the pace of those purchases seem positively pedestrian, with Gates splurging on a series of deals that have more than doubled his holdings and propelled him ever faster up the charts of landowners. Finally, this year, according to calculations by the experts at The Land Report, he was the biggest squire in the US.
It was 2017 when the purchasing really picked up. Cascade splashed more than $500,000,000 on more than 100,000 acres across nine states. The following year, a further $171m went on buying 14,500 acres in those idyllic Horse Heaven Hills, for a total of around $690m 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?
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 6pc per annum, according to Savills. But after the turn of the millennium it more than trebled in value.
So when Gates was asked recently, 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, has acquired two 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.
In the UK, Danish billionaires Anders and Anne Holch Povlsen want to rewild their own 200,000 acres of the Scottish highlands.
“The lynx, the bear and wolves... may be able to return,” their website notes. It sounds all very exciting and very Game of Thrones. The Scottish Land Commission, on the other hand, takes the boringly prosaic view that the concentration of land ownership in the Highlands is “causing significant and long-term damage to the communities affected”.
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 $35bn and counting, he is very much number one.
So just how much land do Bill Gates and his former wife Melinda own? It amounts to 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 $690m (€611m), a fraction of his estimated $128.1bn (€113.4bn) net worth.
It’s equivalent to more than 1,000 square kilometres, or more than 400 square miles. 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.
In his first public comment on the topic last month he said the move was not connected to his work on climate change, but provided a clue as to why the land is considered a good investment.
“My investment group chose to do this. It is not connected to climate.
“The agriculture sector is important. With more productive seeds we can avoid deforestation and help Africa deal with the climate difficulty they already face.
“It is unclear how cheap biofuels can be but if they are cheap it can solve the aviation and truck emissions,” he said in a public discussion on social media platform Reddit.
He 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.
Bill Gates: ‘My investment group chose to buy up land, it is not connected to the climate but the agriculture sector is important’
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