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Port: Bill Gates shouldn't have needed a loophole in the law to buy land in North Dakota

Gates and his trust will own the land, and the family who sold it to him will farm it, and that's all legal under the law.

Bill Gates.JPG
Microsoft founder Bill Gates is seen at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, in this file photo taken January 22, 2015.
REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/Files
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MINOT, N.D. — North Dakota's ban on corporate farming is stupid.

It cannot be reconciled with our society's foundational notions about property rights and free association. Willing buyers should be able to purchase land from willing sellers. People who want to farm or ranch on that land should be able to organize their businesses with more than just family.

I had thought, when news first broke that Attorney General Drew Wrigley was looking into a multi-million dollar land sale made by a trust controlled by tech industry billionaire Bill Gates, that we might see a legal challenge that would strike down North Dakota's corporate farming ban once and for all.

Alas, it is not to be. Wrigley told me on Monday that he'd sent a letter to the Red River Trust to gather information about the transaction. The information provided by legal counsel for the trust indicates that the land sale is legal, under existing law, because the trust which will own the land is operated for the benefit of one person, Bill Gates, and the land itself will be leased to a partnership that will farm the land.

Here are the communications between Wrigley's office and lawyers for the trust.

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The pertinent exemption in North Dakota law is section 10-06.1-09 of the North Dakota Century Code which states: "A nonprofit organization or a trust for the benefit of an individual or a class of individuals related within the degrees of kinship specified in subsection 2 of section 10-06.1-12 may own or lease farmland or ranchland if that land is leased to a person who farms or ranches the land as a sole proprietorship or partnership, or a corporation or limited liability company allowed to engage in farming or ranching under section 10-06.1-12."

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The Red River Trust is controlled by a single person. Namely, Bill Gates.

His trust is going to lease the land back to the people that sold it to him - the Campbell family, which includes former Republican state Senator Tom Campbell - for the purposes of farming.

Gates and his trust will own the land, and the Campbells will farm it, and that's all legal under the law.

Though, again, there shouldn't need to be a loophole in the law to allow this sort of thing. If the Campbells want to sell their land, they should be able to. And Bill Gates, through his trust, should be able to lease it to whomever he'd like.

Supporters of North Dakota's corporate farming ban like to imagine that it's protecting family farms. Only, even if we concede that the family farm is a viable business model in the 21st century that should be protected from alternatives by the government, it's not the least bit clear, as the number of farm businesses in North Dakota dwindle, that the corporate farming ban is accomplishing any such thing.

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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