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Don't Think Farmland Values Could Tumble? Think Again

November 16, 2012
By: Boyce Thompson, AgWeb.com Editorial Director google + 
Farmland
  

Farmland values may not be in a bubble, but changed fundamentals could undermine recent gains

Strong farmland appreciation, 20% or better in many Midwest markets, makes perfect theoretical sense given today’s low interest rates, strong farm incomes and high crop prices. That’s why most academics and economists generally conclude that an agricultural land bubble doesn’t exist.

"But remember, it’s not just bubbles that cause land values to come down," says Craig Dobbins, an agricultural economist at Purdue University, speaking at a recent conference. "It’s also what people perceive to be the fundamentals. And the perception of the fundamentals could change."

Dobbins was one of several speakers at last week’s Farmland Value and Leasing Conference in Decatur, Ill., who warned that unexpected shocks to ag's foundations could topple farmland values. Investors who are fueling interest in farmland could sour on it if the federal government revises its mandate that gasoline producers buy ethanol; if China’s consumption of feedstock slows; or if South America dramatically increases its grain production, among other activity.

While market conditions favor continued growth in agricultural land values, says David Oppedahl, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, there's some uncertainty. Oppedeahl outlined some shocks that could disrupt the trend. A divided Congress, for instance, might be unable to find common ground on a farm bill or fail to avert the fiscal cliff. The huge federal deficit might force policymakers to trim the federal crop insurance program.

Farmland values have been increasing at double-digit rates for several years. Lee Vermeer, vice president of real estate operations for Farmers National, expects the growth to slow this year. Vermeer sold about 700 farms last year worth about $500 million, and most of the sales happened at auction. Farmers National also manages 5,000 farms.

"When you see land values doing up 30% a year in some states, year after year, you think to yourself, That can’t go on."

But it has. Farmers National, which witnessed a 20% to 25% rise in values last year, expects to see increases north of 20% again this year. Interest has picked up of late. Investors are clamoring to get in on deals before the end of the year when tax rates and policies might change.

"In every area where we work, 24 states, there’s a record demand for land. We have record rents, record income, record land values," says Vermeer, noting that investors remain bullish on agricultural land, even though profits have gone up 30% since 2007, according to USDA statistics.

But Vermeer, too, worries that the sands could shift under the agricultural economy. "If they take away that (ethanol) mandate, there goes a chunk of our demand. That’s something we have to watch."

Agricultural land, like stocks, bonds or other investments, may be due for a "market correction" says Vermeer, noting that recent yearly price increases rival those of the late 1970s. They were followed by a fall in land vaules in the early 1980s that triggered a farm crisis in the Midwest. "The likelihood of a correction goes up with increased volatility," he says.

Dobbins, who does a survey of Indiana farmland values every year, used to have trouble explaining the steady increases since 2000. It's no longer as difficult, given recent trends in net income, returns and crop prices. There’s also the matter of supply constraints. "There’s never enough land brought to the market, it seems," he says.

A recent roundup of Fed surveys shows that, despite the drought, nonirrigated cropland values rose more than 30% in Nebraska and South Dakota. In Iowa, year-over-year values rose 24%. The Eastern Corn Belt overall witnessed an increase of between 10% and 15%.

Investors account for a growing share of buyers, says Vermeer, even though local farmers still account for 70% to 80% of sales. The broker keeps fielding calls from investors who have read about strong farmland returns and want to diversify their portfolio. They are typically looking to hold long-term.

"They are looking for specific returns," says Vermeer, putting them within the range of 3.5% to 4%. "If they can’t hit that number, they don’t buy … .There’s just a ton of cash pouring into this market, which has been one of the major drivers pushing prices upward."

Investor interest has helped push price-to-earnings ratios on farmland to about 30, compared to roughly 18 for stocks. "That makes you stop and think a bit," Vermeer says.

Low interest rates are one explanation for high P/E ratios. Rates on 10-year Treasuries remain below 2%, and the Federal Reserve Board wants to hold them down until economic growth improves.

The high prices being paid for farmland make it difficult for small farmers to compete. Says Dobbins: "If I’m (a small farmer) in an auction with someone who is willing to spend 33 times current earnings, I don’t have a prayer. The problem is that there are lots of them out there."

Even as they held out the possibility that farmland values could tumble, most speakers at the conference don’t believe they will. Based on current prices for 2013 corn and soybeans, farmer incomes are likely to be higher next year, says Gary Schnitkey, a University of Illinois agricultural economist. Given that scenario, along with the probability of continued low interest rates, "Why wouldn’t farmland values keep going up?"

Demand for agricultural products is different than demand for homeownership, several speakers stressed. U.S. farmers produce a real product that’s needed by the entire world, Vermeer says. And they produce it in an environment with low debt, strong profits and increasing productivity.

"The reality is our production has just been keeping up with worldwide demand. Now with the drought, we’ll need to ramp up our production," Vermeer says.

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COMMENTS (8 Comments)

scout - union beach, NJ
When is the fed going to stop printing money???? So if the estate tax becomes 1 million and you have a 400 acre farm, a farm family could end up owing $2,500,000 in taxes. So the government printed money for the last 4 years pumping up farmland values to rape the farm family with estate taxes. Farmers think government is their friend until they realize --government is going to take your land from under you. Look at what they did in the housing bubble---will the farmland bubble be any different?​
11:53 AM Nov 26th
 
scout - union beach, NJ
When is the fed going to stop printing money???? So if the estate tax becomes 1 million and you have a 400 acre farm, a farm family could end up owing $2,500,000 in taxes. So the government printed money for the last 4 years pumping up farmland values to rape the farm family with estate taxes. Farmers think government is their friend until they realize --government is going to take your land from under you. Look at what they did in the housing bubble---will the farmland bubble be any different?​
11:53 AM Nov 26th
 
- North Platte, NE
Every article I read suggests that the end is near for farmland. As a banker that was around for the 80's, I can tell you first hand that it is different this time. The primary difference is the lack of leveraged land transactions. In the late 70's everyone was borrowing 85% and 90% of the "current market" value. Most had variable rate loans, or short term fixed rate loans. When prime went to 21%, lenders stopped refinancing losses, and many were forced to sell at a time when there were few buyers. If you could get a 14% return on a bank CD, why buy farmland as it was falling? This time around, leverage is very low, and farms have strong earnings to service debt. They also have strong liquidity and the ability to lock in long term fixed rates. Commodity prices will certainly drop, but not for long. Most should be able to weather the storm. Long term, Ag is in great shape!
9:34 AM Nov 18th
 
Smallest Dairy Farmer
Hopefully if mandates go, crop insurance is trimmed, expenses will drop along with that. lived through the 80 s this so much more scary with the old adage still true .......the higher you go the farther you fall. A big roll back occurred that was not all bad. We got caught with a big farm loan & 18% interest. Got sent off to FSA & a really great loan officer that was a help & recognized that some farmers just need the cash to manage on their own instead of the lender managing the farm. I don't know where those loan officers are today?? So today get ready. His philosophy saved us in short order on people he viewed as good managers short on cash to do it.

Keep new spending down & try to get all accounts that you can on fixed rates now. Pay down as much as possible on variable rates accounts. I believe interest has to skyrocket in this environment. Congress will have cut the government supports everywhere or the whole outcome will be even worse. Hope we can hold on people!
5:21 AM Nov 17th
 
swmnag - Marshall, MN
It may be just small changes that cause the market to start to correct. If investors want a 3-4% return, they need $300-400/A per $10k of value. Is there anyone paying $600-800/acre in Iowa for cash rents over the long haul? If prices get down to $4.50 and $10 (FSA long term prices) how much red will bleed on the balance sheets right now? Soybeans don't cut the mustard anymore at these prices. Corn is getting to the point where you need no setback to pay for the rents. There is getting to be little margin for error again, and when that margin goes negative, it will be a bigger number than the gain IMHO.
9:56 AM Nov 16th
 
swmnag - Marshall, MN
It may be just small changes that cause the market to start to correct. If investors want a 3-4% return, they need $300-400/A per $10k of value. Is there anyone paying $600-800/acre in Iowa for cash rents over the long haul? If prices get down to $4.50 and $10 (FSA long term prices) how much red will bleed on the balance sheets right now? Soybeans don't cut the mustard anymore at these prices. Corn is getting to the point where you need no setback to pay for the rents. There is getting to be little margin for error again, and when that margin goes negative, it will be a bigger number than the gain IMHO.
9:56 AM Nov 16th
 
Zingula - Central City, IA
The author must be expecting the "fiscal cliff" to go away. On Jan 1 the exemption for estate tax drops to one million dollars - could be less than 80 acres in my area if other capital assets are included. This will cause many estates to sell land to pay estate taxes. Will there be enough buyers to "pick up the slack"?
6:57 AM Nov 16th
 
Zingula - Central City, IA
The author must be expecting the "fiscal cliff" to go away. On Jan 1 the exemption for estate tax drops to one million dollars - could be less than 80 acres in my area if other capital assets are included. This will cause many estates to sell land to pay estate taxes. Will there be enough buyers to "pick up the slack"?
6:57 AM Nov 16th
 



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