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Port: Bill Gates can't buy land in North Dakota?

Where's the support for property rights?

Bill Gates
File photo of Bill Gates.
(Gabriella Demczuk/Copyright 2019 The New York Times)
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MINOT, N.D. — North Dakotans like to pride themselves on being pro-property rights.

Except, it seems, when it comes to a private individual selling some land to iconic billionaire Bill Gates.

At issue is 2,100 acres of farmland in Pembina and Walsh Counties that was sold to the Red River Trust , an entity associated with Gates, for $13.5 million. The seller is Campbell Farms, the family business of former Republican state Sen. Tom Campbell, who last made statewide headlines when he was running for a seat in Congress in 2016.

Attorney General Drew Wrigley's office is now investigating the transaction for a possible violation of North Dakota's ban on corporate farming.

A business incorporated in North Dakota to farm or ranch must consist of no more than 15 shareholders all of whom must be related only in the following ways: parent, son, daughter, stepson, stepdaughter, grandparent, grandson, granddaughter, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, nephew, niece, great-grandparent, great-grandchild, first cousin, or the spouse of a person so related.

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Second cousins were added to this list thanks to a bill passed in the 2019 session of the state Legislature , though it was over the objections of the North Dakota Farmer's Union .

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This ban is absurd. An affront both to property rights and association rights. The government has no business telling a willing seller which willing buyer they can sell their land to. The government has no right to say you cannot start a farming business with your best friend from high school, or (hold onto your hats) maybe a third cousin.

It's also obnoxious that a sale of land to Bill Gates is prohibited.

That's not a criticism of Wrigley, by the way. His job is to enforce the laws as written, not pick and choose based on his personal whims. I don't know how he feels about the corporate farming ban, and it's not particularly relevant for the duties of his office.

What is relevant is whether or not that law ought to survive.

It shouldn't. Not, again, if we care about property rights, or the rights of individuals to decide for themselves who they'll be in business with.

Gates and his agricultural interests are a provocative test case for this position, I know. Gates himself is the bete noir for a certain faction of anti-vaccination, anti-globalism populists. There are many in our state who, while perhaps persuadable on the issue of property rights, will oppose this transaction because it involves Gates.

And there's also the not-so-palatable spectacle of a billionaire buying up American land. I've read some hot-headed claims on social media that Gates already owns most of America's farmland, but this isn't even close to accurate. He owns about 269,000 acres, as of last year , of our nation's 895 million total acres of farm land , good for about 3/100s of 1%.

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Still, a billionaire competing with American farmers for farmland inflames the populist sentiments that drove states like North Dakota to institute corporate farming bans in the first place.

Supposedly, corporate farming bans protect family farms, though there's little evidence that's true.

3981452+campbell.jpg
State Senator Tom Campbell appears in a video ad for his 2018 U.S. Senate campaign.
YouTube

“North Dakota has lost nearly two-thirds of its farms since the 1930s, and the number of farms continues to fall — even though the anti-corporate farming law has been in effect through all of those years,” columnist Mike Jacobs noted back in 2016 .

That trend has continued. “The United States Department of Agriculture reports farm numbers dropped by 300 in the state last year, to a little more than 26,000,” KFYR reported in 2019 , and the reasons why are the very sort of economies of scale the corporate business model was designed to address. “Farmers say the cost price squeeze is a big part the issue,” KFYR reported at the time. “Whether it’s how much their crops are selling for, heavy machinery or cost of dairy, farmers say it can be hard to keep up.”

Organizing a business as a corporation allows for better access to capital, and more efficient use of resources, but that sort of thing isn't allowed for North Dakota's oldest and most important industry, because of some quaint political notions about what a farming business ought to look like.

North Dakota would be a stronger state if we allowed our agriculture entrepreneurs to avail themselves of modern business practices with people who aren't their second cousins.

But maybe you think I'm wrong about that. Maybe you think a nightmare scenario where corporate giants buy up all of North Dakota's land and crowd out smaller operations is more likely.

Maybe it is. But property rights are still property rights. You should be able to sell what you own to who you want.

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Should Bill Gates and his trust be able to buy farmland from a willing seller in North Dakota? Absolutely, and I say that as someone with no particular affinity for Gates or his various endeavors in the political world.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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