FARGO, N.D. (AP) - The sale of a couple thousand acres of prime North Dakota farmland to a group tied to Bill Gates has stirred emotions over a Depression-era law meant to protect family farms and raised questions about whether the billionaire shares the state's values.
Gates is considered the largest private owner of farmland in the country with some 269,000 acres across dozens of states, according to last year's edition of the Land Report 100, an annual survey of the nation's largest landowners. He owns less than 1 percent of the nation's total farmland.
The state's attorney general has asked the trust that acquired the North Dakota land to explain how it plans to use it in order to meet rules outlined in the state's archaic anti-corporate farming law. It prohibits all corporations or limited liability companies from owning or leasing farmland or ranchland, with some exceptions.
"I don't know that it's quite as volatile a situation as some have depicted," North Dakota Republican Attorney General Drew Wrigley told The Associated Press Thursday. "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."
Meanwhile, the state's Agriculture Commissioner, Republican Doug Goehring, told a North Dakota TV station that many people feel they are being exploited by the ultra-rich who buy land but do not necessarily share the state's values. About 2100 acres (849.84 hectares) of land were sold in the deal, AgWeek reported.
Goehring, who is currently on a state-sponsored trade mission to the United Kingdom, did not immediately respond to a list of questions emailed by the AP.
"I've gotten a big earful on this from clear across the state, it's not even from that neighborhood," Goehring told KFYR-TV. "Those people are upset, but there are others that are just livid about this."
Charles V. Zehren, a spokesman for Gates' investment firm, declined Thursday to comment to the AP.
Wrigley said the corporate farming inquiry goes out "as a matter of course" when his office is notified of farmland sales, in this case Red River Trust's $13.5 million purchase of property in two counties from wealthy northeastern North Dakota potato growers Campbell Farms. Phone calls to Campbell Farms went unanswered.
"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."
Corporations are exempted from the law if the land is necessary "for residential or commercial development; the siting of buildings, plants, facilities, industrial parks, or similar business or industrial purposes of the corporation or limited liability company; or for uses supportive of or ancillary to adjacent non agricultural land for the benefit of both land parcels," the law reads.
It's not the first test for a statute that was passed in 1932. A federal judge in 2018 ruled the law constitutional after a conservative farm group argued that it limits business options for producers and interferes with interstate commerce by barring out-of-state corporations from being involved in North Dakota's farm industry.
North Dakota Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, a former Microsoft executive whose campaign received $100,000 from Microsoft co-founder Gates when Burgum first won in 2016, declined to comment on the farmland sale. The Republican governor stayed down the middle when asked his opinion of the anti-corporate farming law, which he and the Legislature expanded in 2019 to allow second cousins in the mix of ownership.
"The governor strongly supports family farms and is open to discussions about cutting red tape that puts North Dakota farmers at a disadvantage compared with neighboring states and ensuring that our ranchers and farmers can succeed and grow their operations, helping rural communities to thrive," Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said.