Bill Gates

Bill Gates and his wife Melinda hold 242,000 acres in 18 states.

Bill Gates is as far from dirt poor as one can be.

In fact, the Microsoft co-founder and his wife, Melinda, now rank as the top private farmland owners in the U.S., according to Land Report, “the magazine of the American landowner.”

What? Bill Gates, the world’s fourth-richest person (or third, depending on whom you believe), a hobby farmer? Well, actually, that might be taking things a bit too far.

But the Gates' do hold 242,000 acres in 18 states, mostly in Louisiana, Arkansas, Nebraska, Mississippi, Illinois and Washington. Their agrarian acquisitions haven’t reached yet into the Northeast. The real estate is held directly or through third-party entities.

That’s a lot of portfolio diversification for the software developer/business tycoon, whose fortune is estimated by Forbes magazine to rest in the $121 billion neighborhood.

Runners-up on the Land Report list, at 190,000 acres apiece, are the Offutt family, owners of R.D. Offutt Co. and affiliates, America’s largest grower of spuds, and Stewart and Lynda Resnick, co-founders of the investment firm The Wonderful Co., and owners of the brands Wonderful Pistachios, POM Wonderful, and Wonderful Halos mandarins.

This 622,000-acre chunk of collective soil in the hands of three families is no small potatoes when you realize the nation’s tiniest state, Rhode Island, spans a mere 988,832 total acres. On the other hand, it’s dwarfed by the 897 million acres in farmland across the country as of 2019, according to USDA.

In addition to the farmland, the Gateses also hold 25,750 acres of transitional land near Phoenix, which is slated for development, according to Land Report.

Through their Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the couple have “dabbled” in agriculture for years. In 2008, Forbes notes, the foundation “announced $306 million in grants to promote high-yield, sustainable agriculture among smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The foundation has further invested in the development and proliferation of ‘super crops’ resistant to climate change and higher-yield dairy cows.”

A year ago, the foundation announced creation of nonprofit Gates Ag One, and said its aim is “to speed up efforts to provide smallholder farmers in developing countries, many of whom are women, with access to the affordable tools and innovations they need to sustainably improve crop productivity and adapt to the effects of climate change.”

So far it seems unclear whether the Gateses’ U.S. farm property is being worked or set aside for conservation, according to Forbes.

Maybe both, I would guess, as well as the possibility that it’s also a smart way to diversify, especially for money managers looking to spread the risk for assets in the billions. Farmland is often considered one of the better inflation hedges, even ahead of gold by some, because of its ability to generate positive cash flow.

I’d also like to think Bill and Melinda Gates, based on their extensive history of philanthropic work, have acquired at least the bulk of that acreage with the goal of easing hunger and reducing global warming. No doubt so much producing land would be a powerful driver toward those objectives.

But there’s also that part of me that can’t shake this image of Gates, who left day-to-day operations at Microsoft in 2008, setting himself up in the role of gentleman farmer.

I’m thinking modern-day reboot of the classic 1960s sitcom “Green Acres,” wherein Bill and Melinda hit the Escape button on their moneyed suburban existence and head for the sticks to take on the day-to-day challenges of making a living off the land.

As a reality TV show (in a world where reality often verges on absurdity), there’d be a rich vein of possible storylines. I know I’d give it a look, even though there’s no way it’s going to happen. That’s too bad; it has the potential to strike ratings paydirt.

Jeffrey Miller, Lancaster Farming’s copy editor, can be reached at jmiller@lancasterfarming.org

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