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A company associated with Bill Gates bought some land. Why do we care?

Why did we report on a Bill Gates-associated company buying North Dakota farmland from Campbell Farms? Here are three reasons.

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Billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft's co-founder Bill Gates.
Mike Segar / Reuters file photo
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Farmland changes hands all the time. Not every piece every day, obviously, but somewhere, many days, farmland is changing hands.

And we don't write about every transaction in our area, or really, hardly any of them.

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That brought up a question in the minds of some of our Agweek readers and AgweekTV viewers: Why did we report on a Bill Gates-associated company buying North Dakota farmland from Campbell Farms ?

If you haven't read the piece, reported by Mikkel Pates, here are the basics: Bill Gates and his ex-wife Melinda have invested in farmland all over the country and are believed to be among the largest, if not the largest, owners of farmland in the U.S. The land is owned through entities associated with them, making some of the land transactions a bit tangled. Mikkel followed the trail and found that some land owned by Campbell Farms in North Dakota was moved to a trust associated with the Gateses.

The question of why that matters to Agweek's audience gets at the heart of exercises completed in Journalism 101 classes. What is newsworthy? What's not? And how do you tell the difference?

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Here are three reasons why we reported on this situation and why we would report on similar situations in the future:

Prominence

One of the determinants of whether something is newsworthy revolves around whether the people involved are prominent. In this case, both sides of the transaction qualify. Gates is a well-known figure worldwide, and what he does is news.

The Campbells are not worldwide celebrities, but that does not mean they are not prominent. As Mikkel's reporting explained, Tom Campbell has been a well-known state lawmaker and has run for statewide office in North Dakota. The Campbell family is well known in agriculture circles as well. They are certainly prominent people in upper Midwest agriculture.

I grew up in Montana, and Ted Turner's purchases of ranchland there and elsewhere were — and continue to be — a topic of conversation and news. This is no different than that.

Unusual

The old adage goes something like this: If a dog bites a man it's not news, but reverse the situation, and you've got an unusual situation that people may want — or in some cases need — to know about.

This situation is unusual, because while Gates' businesses have been buying land, it wasn't known publicly before this that he owned any in North Dakota. Plus, having a person prominent worldwide buy anything in North Dakota would be considered unusual and thus potentially newsworthy.

Impact

The issue of impact is the big one for me and for many journalists. Does this affect our audience? Will it or could it have an impact on their lives? There certainly will be people who say this doesn't impact anyone other than the buyer and seller. And they are welcome to that opinion. But we balanced the potential impact this could have on communities, states and agriculture and determined there is an impact.

First, communities have a vested interest in knowing who owns what land. If there is a noxious weed problem in a field and it's going to spread to the next field, someone needs to talk to that owner, whether it's an absentee owner or not. That's just one example. But property ownership is public record for a reason.

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Second, North Dakota has an anti-corporate farming law that many people believe keeps large entities from owning farmland and keeps farmland in the control of family farms. This case clearly shows there are workarounds unknown to many people.

Third, who owns the land does impact people around the land. It's a free country, and you can sell to anyone you want. But that doesn't mean that your decision doesn't impact the people around you for good or bad. There are people who are very suspicious of Bill Gates. I'm not a conspiracy theorist, so I'm going to leave that one alone. But I do live in a small community, and I know the concerns people often have about who is going to buy which farm and what that might mean for community involvement, land utilization and more. A local farmer buying land to expand, a beginning farmer buying an initial parcel to get started, and famous outside investors buying a farm they'll never visit and may not care about in a community they aren't invested in all have different impacts on the community and its future.

We will continue to report news that impacts our rural and agricultural communities, even when some people think it's none of our business. The journalist's job is to be a watchdog, not a lapdog, and we'll continue to serve as watchdogs for the ag industry and rural people. I welcome reader questions and comments about this or any other item we report.

Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's editor. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.

Opinion by Jenny Schlecht
Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.
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