Tom Philpott, March 14, 2014 – In a couple of posts last fall (here and here), I showed that corporations don't do much actual farming in the United States. True, agrichemical companies like Monsanto and Syngenta mint fortunes by selling seeds and chemicals to farmers, and grain processors like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill reap billions from buying crops cheap and turning them into pricey stuff like livestock feed, sweetener, cooking oil, and ethanol. But the great bulk of US farms—enterprises that generally have razor-thin profit margins—are run by independent operators.
That may be on the verge of changing. A recent report by the Oakland Institute documents a fledgling, little-studied trend: Corporations are starting to buy up US farmland, especially in areas dominated by industrial-scale agriculture, like Iowa and California's Central Valley. But the land-grabbing companies aren't agribusinesses like Monsanto and Cargill. Instead, they're financial firms: investment arms of insurance companies, banks, pension funds, and the like. In short, Wall Street spies gold in those fields of greens and grains.
Why are they plowing cash into such an inherently risky business with such seemingly low profit potential? For Wall Street, farmland represents a “reassuringly tangible commodity” with the potential for “solid, if not excellent, returns,” the Oakland Institute notes—something clients are hungry for after being recently burned not long ago by credit-default swaps and securities backed by trashy mortgages. As the saying goes, you can't make more land; and as the Oakland Institute notes, “over the last 50 years, the amount of global arable land per capita shrank by roughly 45 percent, and it is expected to continue declining, albeit more moderately, going toward 2050.”
Financial institutions and food-strapped countries like China and United Arab Emirates have already been snapping up land in the developing world, where prices are low and labor is cheap. But now, the Oakland Institute reports, pricey US land is also looking attractive, because it “boasts some of the world's most fertile soil, advanced industrial farm technology, strong private property rights, [and] federally subsidized crop insurance.”