November 24, 2015 Author: Murray Wise
To read the headlines, you might get the idea that farmland prices are teetering on a ledge, poised for a big fall. The common script is that weak commodity prices will pull land prices down with them. So why did 160 acres of farmland in Champaign County, Illinois, sell on Nov. 18 for $13,156 per acre?
At first, it's tempting to write it off as an outlier -- the sort of thing that happens when a couple of adjacent farmers really want the same field. But it isn't that simple, because in the same auction, another 160 acres went for $11,406 per acre, to an investor. Taken as a whole, including the lesser quality land, we sold 556 acres for $5.98 million that day.
If you read the various predictions we've been seeing -- including some of mine -- you know this isn't supposed to be happening. But as I talk with investors and farmers alike who are seeking to buy more land, I've had to admit that they're right: This is a great buying opportunity. And these are successful operators and investors with cash to spend, just looking for the right land.
What are they seeing that others aren't?
Value. In some areas, farmland is now selling at prices that will provide handsome returns in the years to come. Of the Midwestern states, Iowa has probably had the worst of it, some land falling 20 percent, but prices appear to have stabilized in most areas. Sure, they could decline further, but if you're planning to sell in a year or so, you probably shouldn't be buying farmland anyway.
Steady returns. Today, you can buy a farm that should provide consistent returns of 3 or 4 percent, without the extreme volatility we're seeing in the stock market, where prices are gyrating 2 or 3 percent in a single day. That looks a lot better to me than returns you'll get on T-Bills or CDs, which are stuck very near zero.
Resilience. Given today's commodity prices, it is remarkable that farmers are in relatively good shape. A few -- especially those who bought vacation homes and fancy cars during the good years -- are struggling, but the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago reports that bankers believe they can "work through the turbulence with most of their farm clients." More than ever, farmers understand that some years will be better than others, and many even have cash to spend on expansion.
Sale-leaseback opportunities. Strapped farmers may benefit from a sale-leaseback, which provides them the cash they need and enables them to continue farming. Such arrangements often benefit everybody.
My advice is to tune out the day-to-day noise and focus on value. You'll be glad you did.
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Murray Wise founded the Westchester Group in 1986 after acquiring the Champaign, IL division of the Sandage Companies, a traditional farm management and brokerage firm…
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