Rich pickings as US farms are sold off

Agricultural land is changing hands at record prices, says Julie Creswell.

Agricultural land is changing hands at record prices, says Julie Creswell.

From the potato fields of Michigan to the high prairies of Kansas, farmers in the US are receiving record prices for their land - but economists and banking regulators warn this boom, like so many before it, could end badly.

Across the American heartland, farmland prices are soaring. In places like Waco, Nebraska, and Chickasaw County, Iowa, where the boom-and-bust cycle of farming reaches deep into the psyche, some families are selling the land that they have worked for generations, to cash in while they can.

Behind the rush is the age-old driver of farm booms: high crop prices. Corn, in particular, has been soaring, reflecting demand overseas and, domestically, for ethanol. High prices mean good profits for farmers, and many are using their growing incomes to bid for land. Sensing opportunity, investment firms are buying, too.

David Taylor, of Kansas, said he was saddened to sell his family's farm but that the prices were too good to resist. Four generations had planted corn and soybeans on the Taylors' 146-acre spread. But after living through the midwest farm crisis of the 1980s, when land values plunged, and realising that his children would not follow in his footsteps, he sold the farm at auction in December. His crop-producing fields sold for $10,100 an acre.

In Iowa, despite the drought last year, farmland prices have nearly doubled since 2009, to an average $8296 an acre, far surpassing the last boom's peak in 1979. In Nebraska, the price of irrigated land has also doubled since 2009.

But if the price of corn falls - and many forecasters predict it will, particularly if the ethanol boom wanes - the price of farmland will fall with it. While many farmers have borrowed little money or used cash to finance their purchases, those who have overexpanded could run into trouble, leaving banks and other creditors with their bad debts.

"You can't continue to see the price increases in land like we've been seeing. That's just heading for trouble," said Michael Duffy, an economist in farm management at Iowa State University.

Debt held by the nation's farmers has risen nearly 30 per cent since 2007, to an expected $US277.4 billion this year. The bulk of those loans were made by commercial banks, the farm credit system and the Farm Service Agency.

Some critics say that figure is most likely undercounting debt from specialised finance institutions or credit extended by seed companies such as Monsanto and equipment manufacturers like John Deere. Regulators say it is difficult to determine exactly how much farm debt exists, because much of it involves debt owed to various vendors and suppliers.

In the meantime, large investors have been moving in.

In November an investment unit of the big Swiss bank UBS bought 9800 acres of Wisconsin farmland for $US68 million. The financial services firm TIAA-CREF is managing a $US4 billion fund and now owns 600 farms. But as prices soar, investors say it is becoming difficult to find bargains.

"There are some opportunities out there, but it's tough," said Shonda Warner, a former Goldman Sachs trader who returned to her Midwest farm roots in 2006, when she started Chess Ag Full Harvest Partners, a private equity firm that specialises in farmland.

Like many other investors, her fund buys land and then rents it to farmers. As land prices have risen sharply, so have rents.

"I worry about people who are buying farmland and expecting to get big rents," Ms Warner said. "What happens when corn prices fall next year and they can't pay? What are you going to do? Take their television set?"

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