Update 2022-09-14: Bill Gates responds on MSNBC to my criticisms of his farm policies 2022-09-13.
Update 2021-06-18: Bill Gates, farms, rivers, springs (Vox story).
The story doesn’t say BMAP, but it does get at the heart of the problem the Basin Management Action Plans don’t actually solve, and Bill Gates did not, either.
April Glaser, NBC News, 8 June 2021, updated 9 June 2021, McDonald’s french fries, carrots, onions: all of the foods that come from Bill Gates farmland: Gates does not appear to count his farming investments as the nation’s largest farmland owner as part of his broader strategy to save the climate.
The reporter had never heard of Riverkeepers before, and now here’s one on NBC News.
But some farmers whose land is adjacent to that of the Gateses have expressed disappointment that despite the couple’s wealth, they have not done more to preserve the environment. Quarterman also serves as the Suwannee Riverkeeper and advocates for conservation of the intricate network of springs and rivers in the region, where water from the swamps of Georgia flow into Florida before they release into the Gulf of Mexico. He said that this is where large tracts of rich farmland is used to raise livestock and grow many of the vegetables that end up in grocery aisles up and down the East Coast.
All that farming has led to large water withdrawals from Florida’s aquifer system and requires fertilizer, which leaches through the ground into waterways, emptying nitrogen that has led to destructive algae blooms and severe loss of fish and marsh habitats.
In the video segment, she also mentions manatees.
He hoped Gates would have invested in different farming techniques that could help turn around the ecological damages from big agriculture.
“Well, you’d think, if you’re looking for somebody with enough capital to try that, he would go first. Right? But he didn’t,” Quarterman said. “He never did anything that different from before he got here and what other farmers were doing nearby.”
Quarterman guessed that may be because Bill Gates isn’t the one doing the farming. He’s the landlord, or rather, the companies owned by his investment firm are the landlords. And not all the renters are local.
But Zehren of Cascade noted that the firm has been working in Florida and elsewhere to promote ecologically conscious agriculture and that it plans to continue to evaluate its farmland portfolio to improve its overall sustainability.
“In enrolling in Leading Harvest, Cascade has implemented new initiatives on its farmland holdings ranging from adding additional pollinator habitat in Nebraska to planting wildlife-friendly trees on dry pivot corners in Florida to hosting grain bin safety rescue training for the local community in Louisiana to converting numerous diesel power units to electric to reduce carbon output, to name a few,” Zheren said.
As I told the reporter, planting longleaf pine trees around center pivots in the corners of fields is literally tinkering around the edges. And that’s all Gates did.
Carrots, onions and french fries
A survey of the Gateses’ farmland holdings shows that a broad range of the vegetables that Americans eat can be traced back to his land and that some of this land has also been owned by other billionaires. Starting in 2012, Gates’ investment firm began buying family farms in South Georgia. One of those farms, Stanley Farms, specialized in Vidalia onions, and another, Coggins Farms, focused on growing carrots. In 2014, Cascade Investments combined both of those companies and the land into Generations Farms, which continued to grow vegetables.
Stanley Farms is in the Altamaha River watershed. Coggins Farms is in Echols and Lowndes County, Georgia, and the Lakeland Sands LLC that came with it was used to buy more land, especially in Florida.
Some of that land, including nearly 300 acres, was sold in 2019 to the California-based Grimmway Farms, the world’s largest carrot producer. Another 5,500 acres was sold to Generation Land Georgia, a company that shares an address with Miami-based Optimum Agriculture, which bought Generations Farms in 2019. Members of the Stanley family now work for Generations.
In Florida, a lot more than 300 acres was sold off to Grimmway, for $100 per parcel, which is somewhat unusual. It’s enough to make you think there’s some sort of continuing contract between Grimmway and Cascade.
There’s more in the story. I do not subscribe to its conclusion that it will take Gates-size swathes of land to sequester enough carbon to deal with the climate crisis. Lots of small farmers would be much better. But otherwise it’s a good story.
See also the part with me in my other hat with Okra Paradise Farms.
-jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®
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