Bill Gates, Campbell farmland deal is legal

The North Dakota Attorney General’s office says billionaire Bill Gates’ Red River Trust purchase of Campbell Farms land was legal because of lease-back. But the trust’s lawyer said the Campbells filed the trust’s name with the Secretary of State without the trust’s knowledge.

A substantial farm location sign reads "Campbell Farms," with its logo including a potato leaf.
The headquarters of Campbell Farms is just east of Grafton, North Dakota, in Walsh County. A trio of Campbell brothers in November 2021 sold about 2,100 acres for $13.5 million, to entities associated with billionaire Bill Gates. The farm is continuing to operate on the same land.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

BISMARCK, N.D. — The North Dakota Attorney General’s office has ruled that a sale of farmland between Campbell Farms of Grafton, North Dakota, and a trust associated with billionaire Bill Gates did not violate a state anti-corporate and trust farming law because of a “lease-back” deal.

But an attorney for Gates’ Red River Trust said the three Campbell brothers in the deal registered the Red River Trust name as a general partnership with the Secretary of State's office without the knowledge of the original Washington-based trust of the same name, to whom they’d sold the land.

Kerrie Holm, a paralegal handling corporate farming enforcement for the attorney general’s office, on June 29, 2022, wrote to Matthew L. Thompson, an attorney for the Vogel Law Firm in Fargo, North Dakota, thanking him for a quick reply.

Helm said the department had reviewed the information and were satisfied that the “Red River Trust’s current ownership and lease of the land to Campbell Farms, a General Partnership, is in compliance” with the law, adding, “Accordingly, we are deeming our inquiry file inactive.”

The attorney general’s office on June 21, 2022, asked the trust for information about the Nov. 4, 2021 sale, which involved about $13.5 million on about 2,100 acres of land.


Sole beneficiary

“Red River Trust does not need to meet the definition of a trust,” under the law, Thompson wrote in a June 24, 2022, response. “That provision defines ‘Nonprofit organizations’ that may own farmland” and “provides that either ‘A nonprofit organization or a trust for the benefit of an individual’ may own or lease farmland if that land is leased to a person who farms the land as a sole proprietorship or partnership.”
Thompson contacted the attorney general’s office for a copy of the inquiry, saying it had not reached the Red River Trust’s Midwest office at Lenexa, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City, Kansas, after it was written about in a news story. The attorney general’s office re-sent an inquiry via email.

Red River Trust’s “qualification to own farmland” is on the basis that it is a “trust for the benefit of an individual" as set forth in the statute, not that it is a nonprofit organization, Thompson wrote, and spelled out the arrangement.

“Red River Trust is a trust established pursuant to the laws of the State of Washington," Thompson said. “William H. Gates, III is its sole beneficiary. The Pembina and Walsh County farmland purchased by Red River Trust in 2021 is leased to Thomas Campbell, William Campbell, and Gregory Campbell, together doing business as Campbell Farms, a General Partnership, for farming,” Thompson explained. “The Campbell family has a long history of operating these Pembina and Walsh county farmlands, which has continued under the ownership of Red River Trust.”

But Thompson added this curious comment: “As a result of recent news articles, it came to my client’s attention that a Partnership Name Certificate was filed with the Secretary of State this past February to register the name Red River Trust (Thompson’s emphasis) as the name of a general partnership,” Thompson said. “This filing was made without the knowledge of my client.”

All three brothers — Thomas, William and Greg — were listed as partners under the “Red River Trust” name filed Feb. 15, 2022. Greg signed as a general partner, saying the partnership was formed to “own and manage real estate.”

A curious thing

Tom Campbell, one of the brothers, a politician and former bank chairman, did not immediately return a phone message requesting an interview to explain why the brothers filed the same Red River Trust name with their own farm headquarters address. Campbell and his brothers previously have not returned phone inquiries by Agweek about the sale of their land to Gates.

Agweek initially published a story about the Campbell-Gates deal on June 13, 2022, and a story about the attorney general’s inquiry on June 21, 2022, which was triggered by a county recorder’s forwarding the deal documents to the attorney general’s office, which is required under the law. The law requires such a forwarding promptly after such a sale.

North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, in an interview on June 25, 2022, said enforcement of the North Dakota anti-corporate farming law falls with the attorney general’s office, but that he had received inquiries from constituents across the state, saying they don’t want Bill Gates — who holds controversial opinions about world population and beef production — to be enriched by North Dakota farmland.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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