2021 Land Report: Who owns the most land in the United States?
America’s leading landowners added hundreds of thousands of acres to their holdings last year. That’s one of the many takeaways from the 2021 Land Report 100, which is compiled each year by Land Report magazine. Now in its 15th edition, this landmark study tracks the diverse array of farmers, ranchers, forest owners, entrepreneurs, and investors who own at a minimum 243.75 square miles. As time has proven, this ownership figure is a moving target — and it keeps moving up.
In the study’s first year, 2007, the founder of Burt’s Bees, Roxanne Quimby, qualified for the No. 100 slot with 75,000 acres of Maine timberland. In 2021, the rock-bottom figure to join this club was more than double that amount: 156,000 acres. And there are some specific criteria that must be followed, too. Only domestic holdings can be counted, and ownership must be deeded, not leased. Otherwise, No. 100 on the list — Nevada’s Ellison Family — would be in the top 10. That’s because the Ellisons’ cattle kingdom in Elko and Lander Counties consists of more than 2 million acres of leased federal lands. But because they hold title to 156,000 acres, that is how they ranked.
Who is the No. 1 landowner in the United States?
At the top end of the Land Report 100, an entirely different story emerged. In 2021, California’s Emmerson Family, owners of Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), acquired 175,000 acres in Oregon from Seneca Jones Timber. That transaction, which was announced on October 1, raised the family’s holdings to more than 2.33 million deeded acres.
The inspiring story of the family’s patriarch, Red Emmerson, is the magazine’s cover story and the featured profile in the 2021 roundup. In 1949, Emmerson began his career in the wood products industry when he teamed up with his father to run a leased mill in northern California that had been sitting idle. Seventy-two years later, the 92-year-old is still on the job, officing at SPI’s headquarters just down the hall from his sons, George and Mark, SPI’s chairman and CEO, respectively. His daughter, Carolyn Dietz, runs the family’s Sierra Pacific Foundation, which has distributed almost $34 million to community programs and scholarships.
Other top landowners
Liberty Media Chairman John Malone ranked No. 2 with 2.2 million acres of ranchland out West and timberland holdings in the Northeast. Washington’s Reed Family ranked No. 3 with 2.1 million acres. CNN Founder Ted Turner ranked No. 4 with 2 million acres. Los Angeles Rams’ owner Stan Kroenke ranked fifth with 1,627,500 acres. In recent years, Kroenke Ranches has become a major player in the renewable energy sector and is on track to be able to power more than 1 million households.
With almost 269,000 acres, Bill Gates retained his ranking as America’s largest private farmland owner. But instead of what he bought, of note in 2021 was what Microsoft’s cofounder did not buy: Easterday Farms and Ranches. The extensive operations in eastern Washington were at the center of a megamillion-dollar scam that defrauded Tyson Foods, among others. At a bankruptcy court auction, Farmland Reserve paid $209 million, outbidding an investment company owned by Gates by $1 million.
Finally, one of the nation’s most innovative agricultural operations was the subject of an in-depth profile in the 2021 Land Report 100. Over the last 50 years, the Fanjul Family, owners of Florida Crystals, have developed an extraordinary land management program that blends cutting-edge technology with Mother Nature. On the one hand, GPS technology is used to enhance laser leveling and the creation of furrows on the family’s 190,000 acres in South Florida. And on the other hand, some 600 bird boxes house the barn owls the company relies on to curb losses to rats whose fondness for sugarcane can have a considerable impact on harvest.
The 2022 Top Landowners in the Land Report 100:
- The Emmerson Family – 2.33 million acres
- John Malone – 2.2 million acres
- Reed Family – 2.1 million acres
- Ted Turner – 2.0 million acres
- Stan Kroenke – 1.627 million acres
Editor's note: Eric O'Keefe unveiled the Land Report 100 at the 2022 Land Expo in Des Moines, Iowa on January 11, 2022.
Eric O’Keefe is the editor of The Land Report, the magazine of the American landowner. See LandReport.com.