Bill Gates

LIVE OAK, Fla. -- The investment company that manages the wealth of the world’s richest man, Bill Gates, has been acquiring gobs of farmland in north Florida the past two years, real estate records show.

Lakeland Sands Florida, a subsidiary of Cascade Investments LLC, which oversees the Gates fortune, recently bought more than 4,500 acres in Suwanee County near McAlpin, an unincorporated community just south of here.

The price: $27,961,144.69, according to court records.

The farm land was sold by Seldom Rest Inc., an agriculture and forestry company based in Donalsonville, Ga.  John S. Bailey, the company’s vice president, declined to comment on the transaction.

Lakeland Sands has also acquired an abundance of properties in other parts of Suwanee County and in Hamilton and Madison counties, which abut the Georgia border, since 2012, public records disclosed.

Brothers Chris and Allen Heine, owners of Oak Hammond LLC, sold 400 wooded acres in western Suwanee County to Lakeland Sands for $800,000 in September 2013, not knowing who was behind the purchase.

The brothers said they had owned the land as an investment and cleared it of trees before the closing at the request of the buyer, assuming Lakeland Sands was either in the timber or farming business.

Chis Heine said the brothers simply “didn’t know the buyers personally.”

That’s the way Michael Larson, who oversees the Gates real estate investment empire, wants it.

The Wall Street Journal said in a recent article that Larson’s job is to quietly grow the Microsoft co-founder’s personal wealth to help fulfill the mission of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to fight disease, hunger and improve education in the developing world.

Larson runs Cascade Investments, headquartered in Kirkland, the Seattle suburb that’s also the home of Lakeland Sands Florida, according to Florida business records. He is listed as the authorized agent for the Florida subsidiary.

Cascade owns more than 100,000 acres of farmland in several states, according to the Wall Street Journal. It also invests in railroads, hotels, insurance firms, farm equipment manufacturing, energy companies, equity stocks and various other holdings.

Real estate has been Cascade’s focus since the recovery from the 2009 recession that plummeted property values across the country, and especially in Florida.

In the past two years, Cascade’s Lakeland Sands Florida subsidiary has purchased these properties in northern Florida: Coggins Acres LLC; Coggins Farm Supply, Inc.; Circle C Produce, Inc.; Absaroka Holdings, Inc.; Hamilton Land Investments, Corp.; Hamilton Pine Trees LLC, Lake Clarke Holdings LLC and Lee Peanut Farms LLC.

Suwannee County commissioners said they were unaware of the connection between Lakeland Sands and Bill Gates.

Commissioner Wesley Wainwright said he knew only that a large land tract near McAlpin had been sold at a premium, and that the same buyer purchased Coggins Farms in neighboring Hamilton County.

Commissioner Jason Bashaw said he’d heard the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was getting into agriculture, but was also unaware of any related company buying local farmland.

Contacted by the Suwanee Democrat, a spokesperson for the Gates family had no comment on the land purchases in Suwanee, Hamilton and Madison counties.

That response was not unexpected. Gates and his Cascade Investments company seldom announce publicly its real estate acquisitions or other investments. The Wall Street Journal said the reason is to prevent sellers from inflating their asking price.

Forbes magazine has estimated Bill Gates’ net worth at $80 billion, making him the richest man in the world. The Bill and Malinda Gates Foundation has an endowment of $41 billion.

Amber Vann is a reporter for the Suwanee Democrat of Live Oak, Fla.