Farmland changes hands all the time. Not every day, of course, but somewhere, several days, farmland changes hands.
And we don’t write about every transaction in our region, or really, almost any of them.
This raised a question in the minds of some of our Agweek readers and AgweekTV viewers: Why did we report that a company associated with Bill Gates was buying North Dakota farmland from Campbell Farms?
If you haven’t read the article, reported by Mikkel Pates, here are the basics: Bill Gates and his ex-wife Melinda have invested in farmland across the country and are said to be among the biggest, if not the biggest landowners . farmland in the United States. Land is held by entities associated with them, which complicates some land transactions a bit. Mikkel followed the lead and discovered that some land owned by Campbell Farms in North Dakota had been transferred to a trust associated with the Gates.
The question of why it matters to Agweek audiences is at the heart of exercises in Journalism 101 courses. What’s newsworthy? What is not? And how do you tell the difference?
Here are three reasons why we reported this situation and why we would report similar situations in the future:
One of the determining factors in whether something is newsworthy is whether the people involved are important. In this case, both sides of the transaction are eligible. Gates is a well-known figure around the world, and what he does is news.
The Campbells aren’t world celebrities, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important. As Mikkel’s report explained, Tom Campbell was a well-known state legislator and ran for office statewide in North Dakota. The Campbell family is also well known in agricultural circles. They are certainly prominent figures in Upper Midwest agriculture.
I grew up in Montana, and Ted Turner’s ranch purchases there and elsewhere were – and continue to be – a topic of conversation and news. It is no different from that.
The old adage goes something like this: If a dog bites a man, that’s nothing new, but reverse the situation, and you have an unusual situation that people may want — or in some cases need — to know about.
This is unusual, because while Gates’ companies purchased land, it was not previously known publicly that he owned any in North Dakota. Also, for a world famous person to buy anything in North Dakota would be considered unusual and therefore potentially newsworthy.
The question of impact is the most important for me and for many journalists. Does it affect our audience? Will or could it have an impact on their lives? There will certainly be people who will say that it does not affect anyone but the buyer and the seller. And they are welcome in this opinion. But we balanced the potential impact it could have on communities, states, and agriculture and determined there was 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 is going to spread to the neighboring field, someone needs to speak to that owner, whether it is an absentee owner or not. This is just one example. But the property is a public folder for a reason.
Second, North Dakota has an anti-corporate farm law that many people say prevents large entities from owning farmland and keeps farmland under the control of family farms. This case clearly shows that there are workarounds unknown to many people.
Third, who owns the land impacts the people around the land. It’s a free country, and you can sell to whoever you want. But this does not mean that your decision does not have a positive or negative impact on the people around you. There are people who are very suspicious of Bill Gates. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, so I’ll leave that one alone. But I live in a small community and I know people often worry about who is going to buy which farm and what that might mean for community participation, land use and more. A local farmer who buys land to expand, a newbie farmer who buys an initial plot to start, and famous outside investors who buy a farm they may never visit and may not care about in a community in which they are not invested all have different impacts on the community and its future.
We will continue to report news that impacts our rural and farming communities, even when some people think it is none of our business. The journalist’s job is to be a watchdog, not a watchdog, and we will continue to serve as watchdogs for the agricultural industry and rural people. I welcome questions and comments from readers about this or anything else we report.
Jenny Schlecht is Agweek’s editor-in-chief. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, North Dakota with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at [email protected] or 701-595-0425.