How "big agriculture" became an idiom for something nefarious could make for an interesting debate. There are some names out there many of us in agriculture will recognize for their sizeable holdings, while at least one other may come as a surprise to some.
The Land Report recently named the top five private owners of farmland in America. The Boswell Family of California is on that list at No. 5. They have 150,000 acres of cotton, tomatoes, and other crops in the Central Valley. Stewart and Lynda Resnick, owners of The Wonderful Company with brands such as Wonderful Pistachios, Halo mandarins and Justin Wines, to name but a few, are the third-largest farmland owners with 190,000 acres dedicated to agricultural production.
Topping the list with 242,000 acres across 19 states, including over 69,000 acres of Louisiana farmland, are Bill and Melinda Gates of Microsoft fame. Combined they own farmland from Florida to Washington. Surprisingly, they own six times as much farmland in Arizona than they do in California. States with over 10,000 acres each of ag holdings by Gates include Louisiana, Arkansas, Arizona, Nebraska, Mississippi, Washington, and Florida, according to The Land Report.
A little over a year ago the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced a new nonprofit called Agricultural Innovations, LLC. According to a statement from the foundation, the nonprofit "seeks to accelerate the development of innovations supported by the foundation's agricultural development team," which will be known as Gates Ag One. The idea is to help farmers in developing countries access the affordable tools and innovations they need to improve crop productivity.
In a story that made the rounds on social media, Gates told Reddit that seed science and biofuel development were behind the decision of his investment group to own more farmland.
Also reported from his interview with Reddit, Gates recognized that there are challenges related to water. In short, he said it is expensive to desalinate and costly to move where it is needed.
Before we chide Gates for spending his money on farmland, let's see this as an opportunity to promote technology to help farmers globally weather challenges related to climate and water. Gates Ag One apparently recognizes that farmers in developing countries don't have near the yields of crops that farmers elsewhere in the world have, and this is a problem for growing populations everywhere.
Perhaps the new technologies Gates eyes will aid American farmers as they seek sustainable ways to control pests and disease in their crops, cut labor costs and improve margins. Surely his reference to biofuels will pique the interest of Midwest corn growers.
Some will likely argue against Gates' thoughts on synthetic meat or question his motives in some arenas, and that's fair. Perhaps a pragmatic view of his interest in agriculture might lead to some welcome problem-solving from which farmers and their customers can benefit.