High Plains Reader | 17 August 2022
Sarah Vogel investigates Bill Gates’ North Dakota land purchase
By Laura Simmons
The former North Dakota Commissioner of Agriculture has still not received the Red River Trust documentation she requested in late June.
Sarah Vogel said she can’t determine if Gates’purchase of North Dakota land through the Red River Trustis legal under the Anti-Corporate Farming Law without seeing proper documentation. This comes about a month after North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley, on News & Views with Joel Heitkamp,said Vogel was “uninformed” and claimed the documentation was either in his office or on the way.
“My ire is directed at the Attorney General and his office because it's their job to enforce the Anti-Corporate Farming Law and I'm certainly not seeing any diligence or eagerness to enforce it,” Vogel said.
Vogel said she became curious after reading Mikkel Pates’Agweek articles investigating the Red River Trust and Gates’ purchase of land.
If Gates is not the sole beneficiary of the Trust, then the sale could potentially violate North Dakota’s Anti-Corporate Farming Law, Vogel said.
Gates would have been able to own land without going through a trust. Vogel said North Dakota law allows an extremely wealthy person to buy land and own it in their own name. North Dakota law also allows the land to be held in the name of a trustee who would manage it on behalf of a trust beneficiary who is allowed to own farmland in North Dakota, Vogel said.
An attorney for the Red River Trust claims the trust’s sole beneficiary is Bill Gates as an individual, but Vogel says that assertion cannot be verified without seeing and reviewing the trust document.
Vogel said Gates’ lawyer suggested the use of a “certificate of trust,” under which the trustee, Peter Headley, would make various sworn statements about the trust and its terms.
“I don't think even an affidavit from Peter Headley is enough,” Vogel said. “You’ve got to see the trust. What does the trust say?”
Vogel said she has a problem with the hidden nature behind the Red River Trust.
There are barriers to taking further action, Vogel said. For example, in order to do a private enforcement action, the person challenging the sale must be a resident of the county the land is in and if they lose the case, they’d have to pay the other side’s attorney fees. In this situation, they’d potentially be paying the attorney fees of one of the richest men on earth.
“So it's the Attorney General or nobody who's going to enforce the [Anti-Corporate Farming] Law,” Vogel said.
The Anti-Corporate Farming Law was created in 1932 to keep corporations out of North Dakota by preventing them from owning North Dakota farmland. This was to protect local, family farms.
Dakota Resource Council Executive Director Scott Skokos said corporations can be worse for the environment.
“Once corporate farms come in, you have degradation of landscape,” Skokos said. “The land is thought of more like a resource to be extracted from rather than the landscape that a family's gonna live on for generations. So you lose that stewardship because it's more about profits and about appeasing their investors and shareholders.”
North Dakota Farmers Union President Mark Watne said corporations can be disruptive to local farmers. Watne said corporations might make decisions not in the interest of the local community in order to minimize expenses.
“[Corporations] sometimes compete at a level that's not fair with the people that are living on the land,” Watne said. “And they tend to bring a whole lot of capital to the situation which enables them to be extremely competitive and it makes it less likely that the next generations of farmers and ranchers can come to the land.”
Skokos and Watne’s views are backed by University of North Dakota Professor Emeritus Curtis Stofferahn and current The Ohio State University Professor Linda Lobao’sresearch. They used a pool of 51 studies to assess the negative effects of industrialized farming in their paper “The community effects of industrialized farming: Social science research and challenges to corporate farming laws.”
Their research found that 82% of cases had adverse effects, including higher income inequality, loss of local autonomy, greater influence of outside agribusiness and environmental problems impacting the air, water and human health.
However, the study did show that 22% of studies found evidence of benign or beneficial effects within socioeconomic conditions.
Stofferahn told the High Plains Reader through email that this study was used in five court cases that challenged North Dakota’s Anti-Corporate Farming Law.
One case was the 2018 North Dakota Farm Bureau v. Stenehjem case where the Farm Bureau challenged the constitutionality of the Anti-Corporate Farming Law. Then-North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and the North Dakota Farmers Bureau both claimed victory.
North Dakota Farmers Bureau President Daryl Liessaid by restricting the kind of structures allowed to have corporations in North Dakota, the government is picking winners and losers.
“We've had a longstanding policy in opposition to the Anti-Corporate Farming Law in North Dakota,” Liessaid. “We think that all farmers should have the opportunity to do business with who they wish and utilize any kind of economic structure or business structure that they wish. A corporation just happens to be one of them.”