North Dakotans Freak Over Bill Gates Land-Buying Mystery

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

He’s one of the richest men in the world and the largest individual owner of farmland in the country. Now Bill Gates appears to have acquired a slice of their tiny city, and locals near Pembina, North Dakota, aren’t happy about it. The news is making waves across the state, as well.

“The public's kind of in an uproar,” said Doug Goehring, North Dakota’s agriculture commissioner. “It's a matter of… he has no tie to the land, he has no tie to agriculture, he's going around to different states and purchasing land.”

The deal, which closed last November but was recently reported by AgWeek, involved roughly 2,100 acres in Pembina and Walsh Counties, at a total price of approximately $13.5 million, the outlet said.

The sellers included members of North Dakota’s prominent Campbell family, who run an eponymous potato farming business in multiple states. One member of the family named on the deed transfer, Thomas Campbell, previously served in the North Dakota Senate and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

<div class="inline-image__credit">In memoriam afiler/WikimediaCommons</div>
In memoriam afiler/WikimediaCommons

The deal comprises just a small percentage of Gates’ overall holdings. As of last year, he and his now ex-wife, Melinda, owned an estimated 242,000 acres of farmland across the country—more than anyone—according to the industry publication Land Report. It’s not entirely clear what entity the billionaires use to control that property. Land Report’s publisher told The Daily Beast that the couple’s namesake foundation currently tops its farmland rankings.

Either way, the North Dakota purchase was big enough to rankle residents. “It made the local news because we don't see Bill Gates on a regular basis. Let's put it that way,” Pembina County Commissioner Jim Benjaminson told The Daily Beast. (There is no indication the Microsoft founder has actually traveled to the region.)

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According to Goehring, local frustration stems from two issues. First, many North Dakotans don’t agree with Gates’ supposed “value system,” with some believing his vaccine advocacy has been a cover for “population control.” (Fact-checkers have cast doubt on this claim.)

“People just don't want Bill Gates in the state,” he said. “It's kind of like, go home.”

The other, less conspiratorial frustration is about the transaction price. Goerhing said that the land “sold for less than what it could have brought within the community,” creating the perception that the Campbells offloaded the property to Gates just to rub shoulders with him, even though locals would have jumped to buy it.

A spokesperson for Gates was not available to offer comment as of publication time. Members of the Campbell family did not respond to requests for comment.

The controversy has mushroomed to the point that the state attorney general has gotten involved. On Tuesday, he sent a letter to the trust reportedly affiliated with Gates, noting that state “law places certain limitations on the ability of trusts to own farmland or ranchland.” He asked for the trustee to provide more information about how the land is being used to determine if it’s in compliance.

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It isn’t known with certainty whether Gates is the mystery buyer, but there are many clues indicating that he is affiliated with the deal. The purchase was made by Red River Trust and its trustee Peter Headley—both based in Washington State, where Gates lives.

A Campbell employee, meanwhile, told The Daily Beast that an entity called Oak River Farms has been helping oversee the property. Oak River has also previously been linked to Gates.

The Campbell family has apparently declined to confirm details even to locals. “I know some of the family, they won't even speak about it,” Goehring said.

News of Gates’ vast portfolio has long fueled conspiracies, including outlandish claims that he was amassing the majority of the country’s farmland “as part of a diabolical plot to cause widespread food shortages.” (In truth, he owns less than 1 percent.)

So why the spending spree? Last year, Gates stated on Reddit that the acquisitions were financially motivated and had nothing to do with his climate change initiatives. “My investment group chose to do this,” he said.

According to the Campbell employee, the North Dakota purchase is nothing to worry about. “We're farming. Nothing has changed. We're still raising potatoes,” the employee said. And, he added, “they’re growin’ good.”

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