When you think of Bill Gates, you probably think tech, not farmland. And yet, as The Land Report recently revealed, the former CEO of Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) is the biggest owner of farmland in the United States. Bill Gates and his wife Melinda own a whopping 242,000 acres across 18 states. The land is held by Cascade Investment, the holding company the Gates family uses for a variety of investments.
Michael Larson, Cascade's business manager, is responsible for continuing to grow the Gates fortune, balancing the desire for profits with an emphasis on sustainability. Larson is also keenly aware of the value of diversification. With a portfolio that is by nature heavily focused on technology, investments in farmland and in companies like Impossible Foods (a company that makes "meat" from plant sources) allow expansion into other areas.
The rise of smarter farming
Last year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced the creation of a new nonprofit, Bill & Melinda Gates Agricultural Innovations, also known as Gates Ag One. The goal of this nonprofit is to provide small farmers in certain countries with the tools they need to produce more crops and adapt to climate change.
The reason for the foundation is that yields on farms in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are below what's achieved in the rest of the world. We haven't seen too much from this foundation yet, but Gates has long held an interest in the ways that simple advances in farming techniques can dramatically improve quality of life in developing regions. He's talked before on Gates Notes, his personal blog, about the economic value of farmers raising chickens.
One of the subsidiaries of Cascade, Cottonwood Ag Management, is a member of Leading Harvest, a nonprofit organization with a focus on sustainable agriculture. Leading Harvest's members, including the farm crowdfunding platform, FarmTogether, have created a universal standard for sustainable agriculture.
Gates has also spoken about his work with Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a group working on net-zero energy technologies. Through this group and other investments, he's an active participant in innovations that may increase food production and decrease food waste.
Over 2 million farms in the U.S.
Large and very large farms, which number almost 200,000, produce 63% of agricultural products in the U.S., but there are over 1.9 million small family farms across the country. As much as 70% of farmland is expected to change hands within the next 20 years.
The second-largest landowner is the Offut family, who own 190,000 acres in their potato farming empire. Third are Stewart and Lynda Resnick, whose Wonderful Company empire includes pomegranate products, oranges, and pistachios. They are followed by the Fanjul family, who own a sugar empire in Florida. The final member of the top five is the Boswell family, producers of tomatoes and cotton.
While these holdings sound massive, they are small compared to large land holdings that include timberlands and ranches. In Land Report's Top 100 list, Bill and Melinda Gates only rank 49th, while Jeff Bezos of Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) comes in 25th and Ted Turner ranks fourth. Top honors go to John Malone, who owns 2.2 million acres of land that includes ranches in Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico.
The bottom line on investing in farmland
Bill Gates isn't the only investor interested in ESG issues. Investing in farmland in farmland can be a way to participate in one of the biggest concerns on the planet: feeding the world. As our own Matthew DiLallo pointed out in his guide to investing in farmland, there are other advantages: It has low volatility, it doesn't correlate with the stock market, and it can be a nice inflationary hedge.
You don't have to have Bill Gates levels of wealth to participate. There are many ways to use farmland for diversification and a steady stream of income. You can invest in farmland through real estate investment trusts (REITs) such as Gladstone Land (NASDAQ: LAND) or through real estate crowdfunding sites that work with farmers. Check out our podcast interview with AcreTrader for more on that. You can also buy land directly or buy an agricultural ETF.