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Bill Gates linked to farmland purchases in north Florida; may be looking elsewhere in the Southeast

On the heels of news that billionaire Bill Gates is likely behind the purchase of two south Georgia farms comes news that another investment group linked to the Microsoft founder recently paid almost $28 million for more than 4,500 acres of farmland in Suwanee County, FL, a major vegetable production area in the northern part of the state.

There are also unsubstantiated reports from individuals familiar to The Produce News that entities representing Gates are looking at farmland in Mississippi and possibly other Southeastern states as well.

Court records show that Lakeland Sands Florida, headquartered on Gates' home turf in Kirkland, WA, and thought to be a subsidiary of Cascade Investments LLC, which represents Bill and Melinda Gates' personal fortune and is also based in Kirkland, made the north Florida purchase from Seldom Rest Inc., an agriculture and forestry company based in Donaldsonville, GA.

The Suwanee Democrat of Live Oak, FL, reported Oct. 22 that over the last two years, court records show Lakeland Sands has purchased numerous farm properties in other parts of Suwanee County and in nearby Hamilton and Madison counties, including Coggins Acres LLC; Coggins Farm Supply Inc.; Circle C Produce Inc.; Absaroka Holdings Inc.; Hamilton Land Investments Corp.; Hamilton Pine Trees LLC; Lake Clarke Holdings LLC; and Lee Peanut Farms LLC.

In the last 12 months, Gates' representatives purchased two south Georgia farms, Coggins Farms in Lake Park, GA and, more recently, Vidalia onion grower Stanley Farms and its subsidiaries in Lyons, GA.

Attempts by The Produce News to contact various entities involved in any of the recent Gates-related sales resulted in no information, though one Bridgitt Arnold sent an email reading, "Apologies for the delay getting back to you. I manage communications for Bill Gates' private office outside Seattle and your inquiry ... was forwarded to me by my colleagues at the Gates Foundation. We will take a pass on commenting for your story."

One South Georgia landowner involved in a recent sale told various individuals and media outlets that he had been instructed not to reveal the actual identity of the purchaser.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Cascade Investments, led by investor Michael Larson, has bought more than 100,000 acres of U.S. ranch and farmland, including a Wyoming ranch once owned by William F. (Buffalo Bill) Cody. The paper said, "Few people know much about Mr. Gates's assets or Mr. Larson's tactics — and the two men want to keep it that way. Real-estate investments ... are often cloaked in nondescript names to make it harder to trace the deals back to Mr. Gates."

That has certainly been the case in Georgia and Florida, where at least five entities — mostly based in Kirkland — appearing to link back to Gates and/or Cascade have been involved in farmland purchases.

According to the WSJ, Cascade's headquarters "are in an unmarked building in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland. Mr. Larson is so protective of his boss that he used to be nicknamed 'the Gateskeeper.'... Employees who leave often sign confidentiality agreements barring them from talking about Cascade."

After divesting himself of about half of his Microsoft stock 20 years ago, Gates hired Larson to manage his personal fortune, then about $5 billion. Under Larson's leadership, Cascade has since grown to about 100 employees — and Gates' net worth has soared to $82 billion. Larson also manages the $41 billion endowment of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

After he was hired, Larson opted to go "off the radar," one acquaintance told the WSJ. The paper said Larson "farms out more than $10 billion in assets at any given time to roughly 25 outside money managers, partly as a way to drum up new investment ideas. The outsiders aren't told any nonpublic details about the size of Mr. Gates's portfolio or its holdings."

In September 2013, brothers Chris and Allen Heine, owners of Oak Hammond LLC, sold 400 wooded acres in western Suwanee County to Lakeland Sands for $800,000 but told The Suwanee Democrat they did not know who was behind the purchase.

The reason for the secrecy seems simple enough: Potential sellers who realize the world's wealthiest man is interested in their property would be inclined to jack up the asking price.

Speculation as to where Gates' representatives may pop up next — and to what his intentions are for the farm properties he has purchased or may yet — runs rampant.

Some suggest the Gates/Larson strategy is simply an investment in land and water, commodities sure to increase in value and become scarcer in coming years. Others fear that Gates' deep pockets could provide him a competitive edge in ranch and farm product marketing. Still others believe the plan is to operate domestic farming operations profitably to fund charitable agriculture ventures elsewhere, a major focus of the Gates Foundation.

As the WSJ put it, "The arrangement is simple: Mr. Larson makes money, and Mr. Gates gives it away."