Eric O’Keefe was investigating a suspicious recent purchase of 14,500 acres of prime Washington state farmland late last year. The Land Journal, his magazine, records major land transactions and provides an annual list of the 100 largest landowners in the USA.
Sales of over a thousand acres are considered “blue-moon occurrences,” according to O’Keefe, but this one stood out. Eastern Washington has some of the wealthiest, most diverse habitats in the state.
“That set off the alarm bells immediately,” says O’Keefe.
He had his analysis team assigned to dig a little deeper. They quickly replied with the answer: the Louisiana firm was working on behalf of Cascade Investment LLC, the shadowy investment firm that controls the majority of Bill Gates’ vast wealth.
O’Keefe knew that Gates, mainly by various Cascade subsidiaries, had been acquiring farmland for years. In Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, California, and around a dozen other states, the Mogul’s properties include vast tracts. Gates now owns at least 242,000 acres of American farmland with the Washington state acreage and other recent additions to his portfolio, O’Keefe estimated.
“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 scoop of the Land Study made headlines. Many stories centered on the longstanding interest of Gates in climate change and sustainability and indicated that land acquisitions could be motivated by those concerns. He was dubbed a “sustainable agriculture champion” by Newsweek.
Those reports coincided with previous reports about Gates’ large land purchases in Arizona. The Gates-affiliated Mt. Lemmon Properties, for example, invested in 40 square miles of “transitional” property on the western outskirts of Phoenix in 2017. (In addition to his farm holdings, Gates owns about 27,000 acres of non-agricultural land, according to The Land Report.)
A press release was released by some partners in the Arizona project, promoting plans to create “a forward-thinking society… that embraces cutting-edge technology.” “High-speed digital networks” and “autonomous logistics hubs” were spoken about. That’s 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 of Bill Gates reinventing agriculture alone or designing tomorrow’s cities was almost entirely speculation.
“The media has a propensity to personalize this,” O’Keefe says. “People want to know, “Why does Bill Gates want all this land?’ ”
But hyper-wealthy individuals like Gates don’t individually make every decision, O’Keefe says. “He has very competent investment managers.”
Given that Gates is the third-richest person in the world, he falls behind Tesla founder Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos with an estimated net worth of $132 billion, these money managers have their hands full.