Stefan Soloviev is in his "western office" -- the passenger seat of a Chevy Silverado bouncing along a dirt road near the KansasColorado border, his farm manager at the wheel.
It's a far cry from his desk on the 45th floor of 9 W. 57th St. in Manhattan, a skyscraper famed for its Central Park views, private equity tenants and irascible owner-Soloviev's 91-year-old father, billionaire developer Sheldon Solow.
Out here, the son is the empire builder. In ball cap and T-shirt, flexing elaborately tattooed arms, he works the phone as the four-ton truck kicks up a dust cloud between the wheat fields. His wheat fields.
Soloviev, who adopted the ancestral form of the family name, makes a quick call to his New York banker to trade some ETFs, and he has a word with a Kansas land broker when he spots a "For Sale" sign. Then he gets his Texas-based lawyer on the line to complain that someone else's grain cars are idling on his railroad tracks. In a quiet moment, he contemplates the infinite horizon and quotes a fragment of Jack Kerouac's On the Road: "... the great raw bulge and bulk of my American continent."
He's 44 years old, an heir to a New York real estate fortune worth $4.7 billion, and a self-taught expert on dry-land agriculture.
Over the past two decades, Soloviev has acquired 325,000 acres-a little less than half the area of Rhode Island, or almost 400 Central Parks-enough to make him America's 31st-largest land owner, according to the Land Report and data compiled by Bloomberg. Soloviev said that includes 135,000 acres of cropland in Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico, and about 190,000 acres of grass for his grazing cattle.
Like others on the Land Report list, Soloviev represents the ongoing shift in the ownership of farms and ranches, most of which have historically been family-owned. The 100 largest owners of private property in the U.S. collectively have 40 million acres, or about 2% of the nation's land mass. Ten years ago, the top 100 had fewer than 30 million acres.
In the process, they've rewritten the rules for valuing agricultural land. Up until the early 1980s, the price of American ranch land was usually calculated as a function of the cattle it could support. Then magazine publisher Malcolm Forbes sold a ranch abutting Yellowstone Park, getting $7 million for land he'd paid $600,000 for a decade earlier, said Jim Taylor, a director at rural real estate firm Hall & Hall.
"The buyers didn't care how many cows it ran," Taylor said. "They paid for privacy, aesthetics, fishing, wildlife. All of those things started to figure into the equation."
Soloviev, who has partnered with his father on some purchases, is rewriting the rules again, buying cheap land on the theory that he can increase production by applying new techniques and economies of scale.
For generations, local farmers plowed their land between crops, wiping out weeds at the cost of precious moisture. Soloviev's farm workers leave wheat stubble on the ground and spray their fields with chemicals to prevent unwanted growth, preserving moisture for the next growing season. It helps that his company, Crossroads Agriculture, earns discounts by buying herbicides for a much larger operation than its neighbors. At the same time, Soloviev developed a reputation for venturing into parts of the territory that even locals viewed as dry and unproductive.
"People always say, 'Why's he buying all that junk?' " said Travis Weaver, a Tribune, Kansas-based broker at Farm & Ranch Realty. "For us growing up here, the land is just the land. But these guys come from the outside and see the value."
Soloviev is buying cheap land for his ranching business, too. Around the same time that his father's landmark office tower at 9 W. 57th St. was appraised at $2,000 a square foot, or $3.4 billion, Soloviev bought a 69,000-acre cow-calf operation near Roswell, New Mexico, for less than $200 an acre. "I will say I can put gain on cattle better and cheaper than anyone else in the United States and maybe, the world," he said.
Soloviev's father, Solow, was the son of a bricklayer who dropped out of New York University to go into real estate. Solow developed a reputation as a builder with a great sense of design and a mean litigious streak. In a career that has spanned seven decades, he has filed scores of lawsuits, including one against the insurer Conseco for selling the General Motors building to another investor. Solow didn't respond to requests for comment.
Solow's career-defining project is a few blocks from there, where he assembled a tract of land south of the Plaza Hotel and erected 9 W. 57th St., also known as the Solow Building. He commissioned a sloping facade from architect Gordon Bunshaft and populated the building with Wall Street firms including Apollo Global Management and Tiger Global Management and fashion house Chanel.
Soloviev started working in the family real estate business when he was a teenager, toiling in the parking garages in his father's buildings. He dropped out of the University of Rhode Island in the mid-1990s to focus on trading commodities. That led him to lease storage space in Wichita, Kansas, during a period when the market was rewarding traders for taking physical possession of grains.
Before long, he decided he'd rather grow crops than trade them. He bought some farms in western Nebraska before landing in Greeley County, Kansas, a sparse expanse on the Colorado border that was named for the 19th century newspaper editor who exhorted young men to "go west." When Soloviev got there in 2006, it was an obscure region for an outside investor to set up shop, lacking the dependable rainfall and rolling rivers that irrigate the lusher lands of the U.S. Corn Belt.
The dry land was perfect for the operation that Soloviev wanted to build, at least if he could find farmers willing to sell family-owned fields to a New Yorker with a Russian surname. To soften up the taciturn farmers, Soloviev would bring his young son Quintin into their living rooms to help win them over with his wholesome charm. Soloviev struck deals for as little as $500 an acre in Kansas, $400 an acre across the state line in Kiowa County, Colorado, and even less in New Mexico.
"If you ever saw There Will Be Blood, that was Quintin and I," Soloviev said, invoking the 2007 film in which an ambitious wildcatter played by Daniel Day-Lewis enlists his adopted son to persuade farmers to let him drill for oil on their land. "A lot of the acres that I bought right off the bat-that are probably our best acres and our cheapest acres-was by having him there, playing the part of the cute, little, blond boy."
Soloviev lives on Long Island, where he's installed his 17-year-old son Christian as the head of a smaller agricultural operation on 1,100 acres on the North Fork -- land he said he may eventually use to build homes. The New York Times reported last year that Soloviev has 15 children, though he declined to confirm that figure.
"I understand it's interesting," he said. "It's private."
He spends much of his time working in Manhattan, where he helps manage the family real estate business. Lately, he's focused on boosting occupancy at his father's namesake building, which is famous for commanding high rents and running high vacancies. Soloviev said he'll take over the business one day, and he's happy his father trusts him to do that.
On a recent trip West, Soloviev had made the long drive in from Denver, past the wind farms and ghost towns, the vast ranches and grain fields, to oversee the start of the wheat harvest and check on some young hemp plants, a new crop for his agricultural business. On a morning after an unexpected rainstorm, he set out on a tour of his fields, talking business on his cellphone or chatting with an entourage that included a grain trader, a marijuana consultant who'd come to help with the hemp crop and Jacob Fehr, who runs Soloviev's farms.
The day-to-day business of making the land profitable is nothing like developing Manhattan real estate, Soloviev explained. Yet farming and ranching, like any other business, poses new problems to solve. And scores to settle.
Soloviev's railroad-a 122-mile defunct line he's reviving after a long fight with the previous owner-is an answer to the high cost of moving his grains. It's also a diversification into the logistics business that he'd like to extend from the railroad's origin in Towner, Colorado, to the West Coast and beyond. When he sees a freighter with his name on the side passing beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, he said, he'll know he's succeeded.
Lately, Soloviev has been telling local farmers he'll buy their grain at better prices than they can get from other companies, including Cargill Inc., which runs a grain elevator in nearby Cheyenne Wells. In addition to the potential economic benefit, the resuscitated railroad holds symbolic value for a farming community that has endured drought, commodity-price swings and population loss.
"Even if it's one train a day, when people hear the whistle and see the train going by, they see that all is not lost," said Priscilla Waggoner, editor of the Kiowa County Independent, a local newspaper.
Soloviev sees the railroad as a way to share his resources with neighbors. But there can also be a cost to crossing him.
"I want this to be the railroad of the people of eastern Colorado and western Kansas," he said. "Anyone who screwed me over, anyone who said anything, I'll remember them, and I will not let them be a part of it."