Why Bill Gates owns so much farmland

Why Is Bill Gates Buying So Much Farmland?

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In January 2021, Bill Gates became the largest farmland owner in the United States. In fact, Gates is the owner of over 270,000 acres of farmland, which is worth over $700 million! 

Many wonder why Bill Gates would make these moves with his investment portfolio. 

  • Is this simply a diversification of Gates’ massive tech investment portfolio?
  • What particular interest does Bill Gates have in farmland?
  • Should we be worried about a tech giant like Bill Gates amassing this absurd amount of land?
  • Is this just a regular investment move made on a large scale?
  • Does this investment say anything about the state of the stock market?
  • What does Bill Gates know that we don’t?
  • How can this inform our personal investment decisions?

Reviewing Bill Gates' financial decisions through the years helps understand these questions better, especially regarding Microsoft, Cascade Investments, and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. So, we will summarize his financial history before we answer these questions.

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Cascade Investments, LLC

Since its IPO in 1985, Microsoft has seen continual success. However, Microsoft wasn't Bill Gates' only successful venture.

In 1994, Bill Gates opened his family office, Cascade Investment LLC, with trusted wealth manager Michael Larson. Over time, Gates sold personal stock in Microsoft and reinvested it through Cascade Investment.

His idea, like many others, was to diversify his investments across different asset classes.

From the beginning, Cascade Investments focused on blue chip defensive stocks, including Four Seasons, Berkshire Hathaway, Coca-Cola, and more. 

Based on Bill Gates’ budding friendship with Warren Buffett, Cascade adopted much of Buffet’s approach to investing: invest in promising companies, and hold long-term to see healthy returns.

Well-Timed Profit Taking From Gates

In 1999, Cascade Investment made an exciting decision: Gates sold over 7 million personal Microsoft shares to diversify his portfolio further. 

This position in Microsoft was quickly funneled by Cascade Investment into this long-term growth strategy. It was near-perfect timing, too, as 2000 would soon see the infamous tech crash of “dot com” stocks.

While Microsoft took a significant hit in the tech crash of 2000, Bill Gates’ portfolio with Cascade would gain around 40% return that same year. Talk about big bets.

By divesting his wealth from his thriving tech company and diversifying into myriads of other non-tech-based businesses, he was not only exceptionally protected against the tech crash of 2000 but made out like a bandit. 

Not only was he no longer relying on his company’s success for his wealth, but he set himself up to make even more significant moves in the decades to come. 

The Bill And Melinda Gates Foundation

Merged from the William H. Gates Foundation and the Gates Learning Foundation, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation quickly became the largest private foundation in history. 

In 2000, the new Gates Foundation was launched with Bill, Melinda, and Warren Buffet on the trustee board. Bill left most of his professional work at Microsoft at this time to work with Melinda and the foundation.

In the past 20 years, the foundation has grown to hold over $48 billion. It has also funded numerous research facilities and humanitarian operations, focusing on overcoming diseases, climate change, agricultural research, and health and nutrition in underdeveloped areas. 

Too Much Power/Influence?

Though the Gates Foundation has spent so much time and resources on helping humanity – more than any other private entity in history – the sheer power their enterprise wields has drawn the attention and fear of many. 

Some of the most prominent critics of Gates have deemed his philanthropy as a budding ‘technocracy’ – a “tyranny of experts” that centralizes power into private corporations’ interests. 

However, the Gates Foundation has been largely transparent at every level of its operations – from its objectives, means, successes, and failures. 

In their 2018 annual letter, the Gates Foundation answered the top ten questions they received, and they admitted that they didn’t think it was fair that their family had so much global influence. Gates also owned up to the various failures in their initiatives and admitted that they try their best to leverage the expertise and wisdom of the community leaders in the areas they aid.

Why Farmland, Why Now

So, what's the interest in farmland? Any why now after years of massive success?

Farmland is an ‘alternative asset’ – an investment that can grow wealth outside of the stock market. Regarding alternative assets, there are a few options investors can look at, such as real estate, fine art, foreign stocks, cryptocurrencies, and even NFTs (the verdict is still out on them).

farmland tractor

One main benefit to alt assets – especially for those heavily invested in the stock market – is diversifying your overall investment portfolio outside the NYSE/NASDAQ.

This is especially helpful if, say, the stock market crashed, and you had a more aggressive stock portfolio (or any significant stake in stock). Think about how much Bill Gates would have lost if he hadn't diversified in 1999.

Farmland differs from other alt assets because it’s a crucial human resource (food = humans). In less-than-desirable economic situations, farmland tends to appreciate even further in value than losing value (I.E., during a dreaded stock market crash). 

Farmland Historical Returns

Because of this crucial factor inherent to farmland, it also tends to provide better, consistent returns when inflation rises – another scenario where more ‘traditional’ assets like stocks and real estate suffer.

Also, because you’re investing in the land itself, your investment is quite resistant to depreciation and provides some substantial tax benefits due to land ownership. You’re not investing in a building that will decay over time but the rich farmland itself.

There are a lot of little benefits that stack up when talking about farmland. Still, the biggest is likely that farmland returns historically outperform most other investment vehicles and are comparatively the least volatile asset.

“Why doesn’t everyone just invest in farmland, then? Why am I just learning about this NOW?”

As with everything in life, there is always a trade-off – especially in finance. 

Farmland has some natural ‘built-in’ drawbacks for all of the built-in benefits:

  • Farmland requires a paid tenant (a team of farmers) to work the land to create revenue
  • Vacancies can create periods without return
  • Weather and natural disasters are real risks involving farmland
  • American farmland produces a lot of exports, exposing you to political risks
  • Farmland has some of the lowest liquidity among assets – you can’t just sell off your entire portfolio in a day
  • It’s a little harder to ‘break into’ farmland than other assets, though this is changing

How To Invest In Farmland

Just 20 years ago, it wasn't easy to invest in farmland if you weren’t already independently wealthy. You either had to directly buy the land, pony up millions to participate in a fund, or purchase farmland via a REIT. 

In the same way, you can invest in ETFs (Exchange Traded Funds) in the stock market; similar products for farmland called farmland REITs exist.

Neither of these is a perfect option. Farmland REITs correlate highly with the overall stock market, and returns tend to be lower than less liquid farmland investments. In addition, purchasing your own farm outright means you are not diversified across many farms; just 1.

However, there are also countless farmland investing platforms gaining traction now too. These allow investors to get started with as little as $10,000.

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  • Investors do not have access to a secondary market yet, so you should be familiar with the time horizon
  • Investment time horizon can range from 5 to 20 years

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Bill Gates Made A Big Bet In 2015

Since its launch, the Gates Foundation has seen steady success and growth, funding science, research, agriculture, and education. 

Bill and Melinda released their latest initiative, “Bill Gates’ Big Bet,” where the Foundation states they’re betting on the significant success of developing nations within the next 15 years, hoping to see more improvement than at any time in history.

The Gates Foundation has focused on alleviating the aftermaths of climate change since its founding. In their Big Bet, they recognize that these changes impact impoverished people the most. 

Gates believes that subsistence farmers and impoverished people will be among the most affected by climate change. This is because of more intense seasons of drought and rain. Due to climate change, dry seasons will be drier, and wet seasons will be lower, bringing more flooding. 

While the global climate change initiative is trying to reduce total emissions by 2050, 2030 is also essential. By 2030, the estimated results of what carbon emissions (and their effect on the environment) will look like in 2050 will be decided in full. 

Thus, in Gates’ mind, it’s essential to help empower these developing peoples before that year comes to fruition.

What Is The “Big Bet?”

The main outline of the Big Bet is:

  • Eradicate significant diseases such as polio, malaria, and HIV
  • Reduce child death by half across the developing countries in Africa
  • End starvation in Africa
  • Educate and empower small-holder farmers through mobile banking

Featured in the agricultural side of their plan is a strategy for subsistence farmers and other small-acre farms in Africa and the developing world education, resources, and layaway payment plans, which can be used through smartphones. 

These subsistence farmers can order the necessary equipment and seeds, paying what they can over a more extended period. 

Genetically Modified Seeds

Another prominent feature of the Big Bet is the implementation of the culmination of the Gates’ Foundations research: specialized GMO seeds for different crops that have been gene-edited to be “pest-proof, flood-proof, disease-proof, and climate change-resistant.” 

Partnering with Monsanto to create these super seeds is also part of the plan.

With this recent farmland accumulation, one might think Gates is using this land to research these gene-edited super seeds.

Interestingly, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is working on this agriculture initiative. In addition, Michael Larson and Cascade Investment manage Gates’ personal farmland portfolio.

Cascade Investment began purchasing farmland in significant strides in 2013. 

The Gates Foundation isn’t the entity utilizing the land but just Bill’s family office. As we learned above, in most farmland investment situations, the farmland owner leases their land to tenant farmers, who usually live on and work the land.

North Dakota Farmland Purchase

Gates' interest in farmland is still strong. In June 2022, he secured an additional 2,100 acres of farmland in North Dakota for roughly $13.5 million. The total portfolio of farmland is worth well over $700 million.

The 2,100-acre potato farm adds to his massive portfolio of farm investments.

Since his divorce, it is still being determined how the assets were split up between the couple.  In addition to farmland, the Gates' portfolio includes numerous public investments, the Gates Foundation, a significant stake in the Four Seasons Hotel, and much more.

Why Bill Gates Owns Farmland

Officially, the general public doesn’t know exactly what Bill Gates’ growing farmland estate is being used for. However, one can infer much when you read between the lines with an objective and open mind. 

Here are a few “likely” reasons why Bill Gates is scooping up farmland:

  1. Valuations of equities (stocks) are at all-time highs, similar to the dot-com bubble. Before this, in 1999, Bill sold off tons of Microsoft stock to diversify. Is history repeating itself?
  2. Returns from farmland have outpaced the stock market in recent years with significantly less volatility.
  3. The old saying about land is, “They aren't making any more of it.” Supply and demand? As more investors look to buy land, those who got in earlier are poised to benefit from the land value appreciation.
  4. Perhaps Bill Gates is looking to test out his GMO seeds. Or have more control over the resources we all use and need.

Whatever you may think about the man himself, he has consistently made investing choices that brought him unusual and incredible returns. This has brought him great wealth when others made the wrong fiscal moves and lost much.

Bill Gates was right when he sold his Microsoft stock to diversify through Cascade in 1994.

He was right when he predicted the COVID-19 epidemic in 2015. 

Bill is now the most prominent owner of farmland in 2022 – an excellent hedge asset against rising inflation.

If you’ve been on the fence about getting into farmland, maybe now is the time to reconsider.

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Each parcel is divided into shares, and investors can purchase shares to earn cash distributions as well as benefit from the land value appreciation.

Farmland Riches is affiliated with AcreTrader, and we may earn a commission when you sign up for AcreTrader.

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