The sale of over 2,000 acres of North Dakota farmland to an entity linked to Bill Gates, the fourth-richest man in the world and America’s largest private owner of farmland, has attracted scrutiny from the state’s top prosecutor.
Red River Trust, a Texas-based entity with ties to Gates, in November purchased 13 parcels of land near the borders of Minnesota and Canada, a move that North Dakota officials said may violate the state’s corporate farming laws. Over 2,100 acres of land in North Dakota’s Pembina and Walsh counties were sold in the transaction, regional agricultural publication AgWeek reported. The company paid a total of $13.5 million, records The Epoch Times obtained from the two counties show.
The trust is located in Lenexa, a suburb of Kansas City, and shares the same address with Cottonwood Ag Management, a subsidiary of Cascade Investment, an asset management firm controlled by Gates, as well as Oak River Farms/Midwest, which has been previously traced to the billionaire Microsoft founder.
The trustee of Red River Trust is Peter Headley, whose LinkedIn profile identified him as head of agriculture investment for Cottonwood Ag since April 2017.
A research report last January found Gates to be America’s biggest private farmland owner, having acquired over 242,000 acres of land across 18 U.S. states. The amount is still less than 1 percent of the nation’s total farmland.
The seller of both land deals was Campbell Farms, a family-owned potato farming group headquartered in Grafton, North Dakota. The three brothers William P. Campbell, Gregory T. Campbell, and Thomas S. Campbell signed the agreements handing over land ownership to Red River Trust, according to Pembina and Walsh county records.
On June 21, North Dakota’s Attorney General Drew Wrigley penned a letter asking Red River Trust to explain how it plans to use the land to comply with state law. The regulation (pdf), with some exceptions, largely bars trust corporations and limited liability companies from owning or leasing farmland or ranchland, he wrote in the letter, warning that companies who fail to meet the regulations face up to a $100,000 fine.
Vogel Law Firm, which represents Red River Trust, told the North Dakota attorney general’s office that the trust has met the state law requirements by leasing the purchased land to Campbell Farms for farming.
“The Campbell family has a history of operating these Pembina and Walsh County farmlands, which has continued under the ownership of Red River Trust,” Matthew Thompson, an attorney with the law firm, wrote in a June 24 letter obtained by The Epoch Times.
The attorney general’s office has closed the inquiry.
The state’s agriculture commissioner, Doug Goehring, said that the reaction from the public to the deal was far from positive.
“I’ve gotten a big earful on this from clear across the state, it’s not even from that neighborhood,” he told North Dakota TV station KFYR-TV. “Those people are upset, but there are others that are just livid about this.”
In a recent media interview, though, Wrigley appeared to downplay the issue.
“I don’t know that it’s quite as volatile a situation as some have depicted,” he told The Associated Press. “It’s taken off, it’s all over the planet, but it’s not me sticking a finger in the eye of Bill Gates. That’s not what this is.”
He said his office makes such corporate farming inquiries “as a matter of course.”
“It’s meant to get everybody up to speed on what the ownership arrangement is and what their intentions are for the land,” Wrigley said. “If it complies with state law, the matter goes forward. If not, they’re informed they’re going to have to divest of the land.”
Gates made his first public comment about his farmland investments in March 2021, during an “Ask Me Anything” session on the social media platform Reddit.
“Why are you buying so much farmland?” asked one Reddit user.
“My investment group chose to do this. It is not connected to climate,” Gates wrote in response. “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.”
Gary Hubbell, a real estate broker and accredited land consultant at United Country Ranch Properties in Colorado, said he sees “a lot of resentment and resistance to [Gates’] acquisitions.”
“Not to say that we don’t appreciate people who amass large holdings, because it’s an integral part of our business,” Hubbell told NTD, the sister media of The Epoch Times. “But they are no longer really a part of the community, and it seems that Bill Gates, his goals are contrary to many of the established practices and traditions of those communities.”
The Epoch Times has reached out to Headley, Cascade Investment, Cottonwood Management, Campbell Farms, and Oak River Farms for comments.