Investors Pour Money Into Louisiana Farmland

May 16, 2016 05:00 AM

In the past several years, institutional investors and a handful of publicly traded real estate investment trusts have poured millions of dollars into farms in Louisiana and billions into agriculture properties nationwide.

The big investment groups, like pension funds, started buying Louisiana farms a few years after the financial markets melted down, said Kyle McCann, an associate commodities director with the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation.

"The reason wasn't that the agricultural land return was a super-fantastically high number. It was the fact that ag land didn't disappear on you," McCann said. "It's there."

LSU Agricultural Center professor Kurt Guidry said when the wave began, equity funds were looking to diversify their portfolios, and farm properties offered a rate of return as good or better than the alternatives.

"You have to also remember at that time, profitability was a lot higher. Commodity prices were extremely high during that time," Guidry said.

The returns have been strong enough that some, including the CEO of one publicly traded real estate investment trust, describe farm properties as "gold with a coupon."

Over the past 25 years, the annual return on farmland has averaged 11.5 percent, according to the National Council of Real Estate Investment Fiduciaries' Farmland Index. That's nearly 4 percentage points better than the Standard & Poor's 500 averaged over the same period.

That helps explain why non-farming landlords hold roughly 80 percent of the 353.8 million acres farmed in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Those landlords collected $31.2 billion in rental income in 2014.

Crop and other commodity prices have taken a beating lately, but that hasn't slowed institutional investment in agricultural land.

The 2016 Global AgInvesting conference pulled in more than 600 people over four days in late April. The first conference, a two-day event in 2009, drew about 100.

Mike Lansford, southern area manager for Farmers National Co., the country's largest landowners service company, said the investment trend is accelerating nationally.

"First, commodity prices start coming down, then land values follow," Lansford said. "They (institutional investors) start buying that stuff at a lower price, try to get a slightly better return."

In late April, Farmland Partners, a publicly traded real estate investment trust, completed a $31.8 million deal for 7,400 acres of agricultural land in Catahoula Parish. The company also owns 885 acres in Richland Parish, the remainder of a two-farm purchase Farmland made in 2014 for $9 million.

The reasoning behind Farmland's acquisitions boils down to a fairly simple proposition, according to its most recent investor presentation. The global demand for grain is projected to increase 45.5 percent by 2050. The global supply of cropland will increase only 4.3 percent over that time. Farm properties represent a low-risk way to participate in "the global food demand story."

Farmland Partners CEO Paul Pittman said the last time food demand shrunk was World War II.

Since then, the rate of growth has changed, but the demand always grows, he said. And there is no more land being made.

Some worry about the shift of institutional money into farmland. Last year, the province of Saskatchewan in Canada banned pension plans and trusts from buying farm properties. Grain, a small international nonprofit, set up, a site that tracks news reports about "the global rush" to acquire farmland, which the group sees as a serious threat to local communities and small-scale farming worldwide. A January 2015 article in The Economist bore the headline "Barbarians at the farm gate," a reference to the corporate-raider mentality that culminated in the $25 billion takeover of R.J.R. Nabisco.

However, Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain said the conversion of agricultural land into commercial, industrial or residential developments is a much greater concern.

The pension funds and corporations buying farmland in northeast Louisiana probably will keep that property in agriculture, Strain said. That's really about the only option there, unlike land along the Mississippi River, which could, and has in several instances, been sold for industrial or residential developments.

Louisiana needs an "agricultural easement" system, like Delaware and Florida, where the state buys the development rights to farmland, Strain said. This guarantees that agricultural land stays in agriculture.

There are federal matching funds available for this, but the state will have to get its fiscal house in order to take advantage of that money, he said.

In 2014 and 2015, investment funds spent more than $2 billion on U.S. farmland, according to Institutional Investor. Numbers for Louisiana were not available. Last year, TIAA-CREF raised $3 billion for a global farmland-investment partnership, upping the firm's farmland total to more than $5 billion.

Despite those sorts of numbers, institutional investors have yet to make a big dent in domestic farm ownership.

In Louisiana, nonfamily corporations, which include cooperatives, estates, trusts and institutional investors, owned 421 Louisiana farms covering 415,000 acres, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The state had a total of 28,092 farms covering 7.9 million acres.

It's estimated that institutional investors own less than 1 percent of the U.S. farm market. But experts say that share is growing, partly because so many farmers are reaching retirement age.

Travis Medine, a Port Allen sugar cane farmer and board member of the American Sugar Cane League, said farmland ownership and attitudes vary in different parts of the state.

While there has been some activity in north Louisiana, it's different in the Port Allen and White Castle area, where cane has been grown for more than 200 years, Medine said. Many of the same families own the farm properties that once were plantations, properties the families may have gained through land grants.

"A lot of these people aren't interested in selling," Medine said. "It's kind of a pride thing."

Thomas A. Parker, a White Castle farmer who also manages farms for private equity groups, said institutional investment may be growing elsewhere, but it has slowed in north Louisiana.

People hear about big deals and sometimes think a big, imposing corporation is taking over, Parker said. But lots of times, the people selling come from the same generation that's selling to commercial developers in south Louisiana.

"They don't have the pride or the value in ownership, and they don't want to farm, and they'd rather have the money," Parker said. "And it's probably just as well that an institutional guy comes in . because they're always going to keep it farmland."

That said, there are a few differences between institutional investor-owned property and that with family-held corporations, he said. Rent tends to be a little higher on average. But institutional investors also budget for improvements and upkeep, such as irrigation or land leveling.

"They typically crunch the numbers. If it makes sense from a return perspective, they don't mind spending the money," Parker said.

That's not always the case with family-held land, where owners may be more reluctant to put additional capital into the property.

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