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The New York billionaire looking to change agriculture with Colorado farmland

After amassing hundreds of thousands of acres of land, Stefan Soloviev says he wants to move away from competition to help farmers’ bottom lines

By Jason Blevins 3:41 AM MST on Dec 31, 2023 Updated 3:28 PM MST on Jan 2, 2024

From The Colorado Sun

Stefan Soloviev, chairman of the Soloviev Group, tours his farmland on Oct. 18, 2023, near the town of Eads. Soloviev owns hundreds of thousands of acres of farm and ranchlands across Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Stefan Soloviev was in his 20s when he started buying farmland in Kansas, eastern Colorado and New Mexico.

The born-and-raised New York City kid was learning the ropes of farming and he visited Prowers County for the first time back then and wanted to check out a large farm he’d just acquired. 

“It was 6 miles off the paved road and I’m driving and everything looks the same and I’m driving and driving and I finally get to the property and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m in the middle of nowhere.’ And I had a bit of a panic attack,” he says during a wandering interview with The Colorado Sun. “I’ll never forget that first time out here. It’s gotten easier. You adjust. You adjust to your surroundings. You start to become part of the community.”

Since he bought his first 309-acre farm in Sumner County, Kansas, in the late 1990s, Soloviev has become one of the most influential members of Colorado’s Eastern Plains farming community. He’s amassed more than 400,000 acres — 625 square miles — ranking the 48-year-old as the 26th-largest landowner in the country. He runs about 5,000 head of cattle in New Mexico and grows about a million bushels of milo — a type of sorghum — and wheat, as well as grass for his cattle — in Colorado and Kansas. 

In early May, he spent 36 hours helping to load a 110-grain-car unit train with his own and his neighbors’ milo at his newly built, 5 million-bushel Weskan Grain elevator in eastern Kiowa County. The train trundled the harvest on his 122-mile Colorado Pacific Railroad — known as the Towner Line — to the national rail network east of Pueblo. 

Soloviev bought that railroad in 2018 for $10 million after a protracted fight with a company that planned to scrap the entire line. He spent $3.5 million rehabbing the tracks that created communities like Arlington, Haswell, Eads, Chivington, Brandon, Sheridan Lake and Towner as part of his vision to build “a farmer-friendly, farmer-first” company that can compete with international agricultural conglomerates that control most of the grain grown in the country.

It was the first time a train had run on the historic Towner Line since 1996. And it was the culmination of nearly 20 years of work for Soloviev, the son of a New York City real estate baron who built his own agricultural empire on the Colorado plains.

“I call it the greatest achievement of my life,” he says.

Hours after loading that train in May, he jumped on a commercial flight to New York where he made a rare public appearance at a real estate forum hosted by The Real Deal business magazine. The founder of The Real Deal, Amir Korangy, kept asking Soloviev about his New York City real estate plans while Soloviev steered the conversation back to railroads and farming. With a bandage on his hand from an injury sustained from loading the train cars the night before, Soloviev expounded on his mission to build his Weskan Grain company to compete with global corporations like Cargill — which reported $177 billion in revenue for 2023 — and Archer Daniels Midland — which reported $97 billion in revenue for 2023

“I don’t need money. Money is not important. I want to build this ag company and make it amazing and I really think I can because of the people I have. But money, it just doesn’t mean much to me,” he told the New York City crowd, urging them to “step out of the bubble so many of you are in” to see the massive, not-real-estate markets outside the city.

Soloviev has tattoos from his wrists to his shoulders on both arms. On his right forearm are railroad rails that start splintered near his elbow but come together into tidy tracks near his wrist. Each tie marks an important year of his life, he explains. He didn’t quite have it all together in his early 30s but he had a direction, he says. 

“Then it all starts coming together right here,” he says, tracing his finger toward his wrist. 

48 with 22 children

Here’s where Soloviev is at right now: He’s 48 but could pass for 30. He’s single and has 22 kids, all under the age of 21. He’s transforming the agricultural industry in eastern Colorado, providing both storage and train shipments for local farmers with two railroads and a new grain elevator that he plans to expand to hold 7 million bushels.  

Yeah, we need to know more about those kids. He married Stacey, a Mormon from Montana, at age 22 and they divorced a decade ago after having 11 kids. 

“Then life happened,” says Soloviev, who lives in Florida but spent much of the past decade in Sacramento, California. “The last 10 years have been quite a run.”

The Land Report’s annual list of the top 100 landowners in the country for 2022 ranks him 26th with 408,000 acres in Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico. (That’s quite a lot of acres but not even a quarter of the 2.2 million acres owned by Colorado cable magnate John Malone, who is No. 2 on the 2022 Land Report land baron list.) But as of December, when he took out full-page ads in local newspapers across eastern Colorado, Soloviev says he is done buying land. 

After two decades of paying as little as $200 an acre for farms across the plains of Kansas and Colorado, he now wants to rent all his farmland back to local farmers. If all goes as planned he will stop farming on roughly 130,000 acres in eastern Colorado and western Kansas, and let other farmers grow grain to store in his Weskan Grain elevator at Sheridan Lake near the Kansas border. 

“Because I can see that the farmer is affected by me making money off the land,” he says, noting how the price of acres has appreciated exponentially since he first began buying farms “and that’s money farmers could have made.”

Soloviev was in his 20s when he left New York and the East Coast and headed west to farm country. He did not get along with his father, real estate tycoon and art collector Sheldon Solow. Soloviev changed his name back to its Russian roots and moved West. He traded commodities, including grain. He saw opportunities in the agricultural industry, especially if he could control the actual production of the commodity. He moved his young and growing family to Wichita, Kansas, and Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and spent years working with local farmers. 

In the early 2000s, he started buying more land. His dad, with a nearly $5 billion portfolio of art, apartment buildings and office space in New York City, was not part of this plan. 

“I bought everything because I knew it was going to go up and I could buy everything because I knew how to play the farm credit system.”

He worked with farm credit bureaus — he carefully spells out the name of a New Mexico banker who shepherded all his deals — and leveraged the federal farm credit system to spend many millions of federally subsidized loans on land with 30-year interest rates around 2%. The federal farm program offers low-interest loans for land that will be used for crops. 

“I think there was animosity from the land I’ve bought … well, not animosity but annoyance because I was winning every auction, you know, for 20 years,” he says. “I bought everything because I knew it was going to go up and I could buy everything because I knew how to play the farm credit system.”

As he moves away from land acquisition and growing crops, Soloviev wants farmers to see him differently. He’s not a competitor trying to outgrow them. He’s the guy fighting to get the best price for everyone’s grain. 

So the pitch looks like this: Rent his farmland at market rates. Grow your own grains. Truck them to Soloviev’s grain elevator close to the Colorado-Kansas border. Then ship the grain on his new Colorado Pacific Railroad to Pueblo to access Union Pacific’s national rail network. Soloviev says eventually he wants to grow into the international exporting business with cargo ships that can move Colorado grain “as far as I can take it.”

“I believe with all this, I can get farmers the most amount of money for their grain,” he says. “Next on my list is getting into the exporting business, maybe with a dedicated port. Some years are going to be local years, with no exporting. But in export years, that farmer who is trusting me with their grain and I get it to a port and onto my own bulk carriers to take it to the end user anywhere in the world, that is more margin for me and more money for farmers. Especially the farmers who believe in me. And there’s a lot of them.”

Colorado farmers waiting and watching

John Stulp has never met Soloviev but he certainly knows about him. The former state Commissioner of Agriculture and Prowers County commissioner whose family has farmed and ranched in southeastern Colorado for many decades says he has “mixed emotions” about Soloviev’s role on the Eastern Plains. 

Generally, longtime farmers on the plains are leery of someone coming into the region and buying land with money that was made outside of agriculture, Stulp says. 

It’s already hard for dryland farmers who rely on just-enough rain to grow grain to pay their bills and “it’s really hard to compete with people who come in with cash they made from other investments,” says Stulp, repeating a common lament across Colorado as people from out-of-state buy homes, spiking costs for longtime residents. In his decades of farming, Stulp cannot recall an individual like Soloviev coming in and consolidating farms. That consolidation means there are fewer family-owned farms in the region and that has a ripple effect on the social fabric of plains communities, Stulp says. But he’s intrigued by Soloviev’s focus on integrating railroad-accessible storage and transportation into his business and by the billionaire’s promise to quit buying land. 

“It will be interesting to see what this (promise to no longer acquire land) will do to future land values,” Stulp says

And that’s where Stulp and his neighbors mostly are with Soloviev. Watching and waiting. Maybe his push into storage and transportation will provide more opportunities for farmers, with more options for selling their grain in different markets. 

When Stulp started decades ago, he would have to truck his grain several hours across two railroad tracks to reach a railroad that would deliver his wheat and milo to markets in the West and the Pacific Northwest. The expansion of the Towner Line means he can quickly move his grain south to ports in the Gulf of Mexico.

“I think he could be opening up new opportunities for not just existing farmers, but young people hoping to get into agriculture,” Stulp says. “There are definitely positives and there are negatives too. But I don’t see them as huge positives or huge negatives. I think most of us out here are going to wait and see how this all unfolds in the coming decades. I mean if he’s in this for the long term and he’s got that many kids, I bet there are some entrepreneurs in there who will come up with even more new ideas for his lands out here.”

Soloviev is confident his plan will work as he spends every other week — along with his 20-year-old son Quintin — in eastern Colorado, meeting with farmers and showing them a new, local option for growing crops and moving their grain to market.

The major agribusinesses that serve eastern Colorado — Bartlett Grain Co. out of Kansas City, Cargill out of Minnesota and Scoular out of Omaha — are not local, he says. 

“I’m based in Sheridan Lake, Colorado. I’m the local choice,” he says. “We are going to compete and we are going to show everyone we are the best choice. I’m the chairman of a massive conglomerate but this is my priority.”

He and Quintin mostly visit with farmers when they are in Colorado, negotiating leases for his land. 

“Everyone wants to rent ground,” he says. “Half the farmers we visit in their houses look at each other and say, ‘When was the last time the owner or CEO of Scoular or Bartlett was in my living room having a beer with me and talking about buying wheat?’ We are shaking things up in western Kansas and eastern Colorado.”

Peter Martin, an accounting consultant who has worked with Soloviev for the past decade, said Soloviev “has more respect for rural America than he does for Manhattan.”

Soloviev isn’t ready to fully endorse that, at least not with a reporter. But he is connecting with rural farmers. 

“Hopefully our way of being a farmer-first, farmer-friendly local grain elevator, in five years I can get everyone out here to believe in me,” Soloviev says. “I have not proven it to them yet. But I will. It’s my goal to do so. Just be patient with me.” 

“My priority in my lifetime is this,” he says, slapping a table in an empty office at his accountant’s headquarters in Lamar, where he meets regularly with his Colorado team. “Because I believe this — all the farmland and handling the grain and exporting it and being the first locally owned, vertically integrated ag company in Colorado and Kansas and all our meat production in New Mexico — is the most important thing I will do in my life. It’s all long term and this is the first inning. I’m not going to stop until I get there. It’s my lifelong project.”

Buying railroads

Soloviev paid $10.7 million for the historic San Luis & Rio Grande Railroad in November 2022. The 155-mile railroad connects the San Luis Valley with the national rail network south of Pueblo. A community effort in the valley is pushing to develop recreational trails that would follow and intersect with the railroad tracks and Soloviev is amenable to working with locals to allow access.

Soloviev called the San Luis Valley railroad — which he renamed the Colorado Pacific Rio Grande after acquiring it out of a bankruptcy auction — “secondary.” He said with customers like agribusiness conglomerate Wilbur-Ellis in Monte Vista and the valley’s vibrant collection of potato farmers, he’s confident he can make the railroad “profitable and work long term.” But he admits his focus now is on the Towner Line. He’s visited the Colorado Pacific Rio Grande line four times in the past year and said he’s “open to anything” as long as the railroad remains profitable. 

“If recreational trails are important to people in that area, then I’m willing to listen to them,” he says. “I mean, I’m not going to be putting much money into recreation, but simply allowing access, 100% I’m fine with that.”

Soloviev said he would be willing to work with smaller businesses that want to build sidings and warehouses next to his tracks in the San Luis Valley.

“We want to generate business and work with anyone over there. We want to make that railroad work,” he says. “I need to learn more about that area. It’s so beautiful.”

A shuttle train is parked by the grain elevator for its next load on Soloviev Group’s farmland during October’s harvest season near the Kansas border.  (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

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