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The unfolding credit crisis just gets worse and worse…

It seems like every day we get some news of a new bank failure, or takeover or some revelation that reminds us that all is not well. And the markets keep sinking…

The U.S banking system lies in shambles, like the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor in ’41. This is no garden-variety downturn, no little dip in the road to higher prices.

I’ve given a lot of thought to what might be a good spot to hide out – and even prosper – during this crisis. Precious metals immediately come to mind: Owning some gold or silver is a comforting thought. But what else?

I keep coming back to something really basic: farmland.

Recently, I spent a few days in an old chateau in the countryside of Normandy, France. There is a tiny town about a mile from the chateau, but otherwise, it is a picture of things pastoral – green meadows… cows cropping grass and taking in the sun… a Jacobin farmhouse… miles of farmland all around… Since I’ve been writing and talking about farmland, I had a deeper appreciation for just how useful such land is.

Really, I can think of no better asset to own during any kind of financial crisis. In some ways, farmland is even better than gold or silver. At least farmland is an intrinsically useful thing. It provides a tangible yield in the form of good things from the earth. We all have to eat. As consumers trim their sails, they’ll give up a lot before they give up their calorie intake. In fact, worldwide, the per capita calorie intake is likely to rise, as I’ll get into shortly.

The problem with farmland is that it’s not an easy thing to invest in as an individual investor. But I’ve found a fund that invests directly in farmland in Canada. The name of firm running these funds is Agcapita, based in Calgary, Alberta.

I’ll get to the details below, but first, I want to flesh out this idea of investing in farmland, specifically Canadian farmland. I think you’ll be surprised to learn how cheap it is and how well it’s performed in the past…

First, we’re essentially talking about three provinces in Canada’s grain belt – Alberta makes up the western bookend, Manitoba the eastern one and Saskatchewan is between the two. While Canadian farmland in general looks cheap, it’s Saskatchewan that really stands out.

Hard to believe that Canadian farmland is so much cheaper than even Brazil’s or Argentina’s. It’s not as if yields are uncompetitive. Canada’s wheat yield (in metric tons per acre) is about 1.0, which compares with 0.6 in Brazil and 1.0 in Argentina. The infrastructure in Western Canada is also very good. The whole economy there is geared around agriculture. There are miles of railroad tracks and grain elevators across the prairies.

So why the price disparity? Here we get to a quirky driver unique to these Canadian markets. For the longest time, there were all kinds of restrictions on who could own farmland. In the last several years, these restrictions have gone away.

For instance, in 2003, Saskatchewan finally allowed unlimited ownership by all Canadians. At one time, you had to be a resident of Saskatchewan to own farmland. No longer. Similar restrictions existed in the other markets. The governments loosened these restrictions or have done away with them altogether.

No surprise, then, that farmland prices started to tick up noticeably as these restrictions fell away.

Suddenly, you’ve got a much larger potential pool of buyers in a market in which agricultural assets are still in demand. In Saskatchewan, in particular, after years of going nowhere to down, prices immediately began increasing year over year after 2003. In 2007, prices increased 11%!

I’ve written to you several times before about the boom in agricultural markets. The dynamics of this change are pretty simple, though we might lose sight of them during these crazy markets. As the wand of prosperity has touched China and India and the rest of the emerging markets, so have the diets of the people changed. They tend to eat better, which puts pressures on the grain markets.

So what we see is grain inventories falling to lows not seen in more than 40 years. So at some point, we should expect to see rising prices for grains – and for the farmland that produces them.

Meanwhile, the amount of arable land per person is falling. I wrote about this in my newsletter Capital & Crisis (“The Topsoil Crisis”). The gist of it is that we are losing quality topsoil faster than we are replacing it.

There is a growing scarcity of good farmland. And you see countries that import grains – such as Saudi Arabia and China and South Korea – trying to lock down farmland.

Agcapita points out that the per capita amount of arable land on the planet has dropped sharply over the last 50 years, and is likely to continue dropping. From 2.8 acres per person in 1960, the amount of arable land has dropped to slightly more than one acre today.

Now, we don’t need 2.8 acres per person anymore, because of advances in agriculture over time. But gains in yield per acre are slowing. Over the last 40 years, we’ve increased the yield per acre by 2.1% per year. But the pace of those gains is slowing. Since 2000, the increase in yields per acre has averaged less than 1% per year.

We may see new innovations in seeds or other technology that we can scarcely imagine now. But it also seems that any solution would take some time and money to implement.

Meanwhile, the world’s agriculture markets just get tighter and tighter…

Demand is strong. In 1974, cereal crop consumption was about 1,500 bushels per second. Today, it’s 2,600 bushels per second. So we have a double effect here. We have increasing population and increasing consumption per person. Agcapita estimates that cereal crop consumption will double again over the next 20 years. The amount of pressure on the global food supply network is enormous. This, again, is a reflection of people eating better and eating more meat – which requires exponentially more grains to produce.

There is another wrinkle to the story: Most every oil-consuming country has put in place biofuel targets that will kick in over the next five years. These places include the U.S., the EU, Canada, Japan, Brazil, India and China. To meet their targets, according to work by Agcapita, we’ll have to commit some 240 million acres to biofuel production. That represents about 50% of the arable land in North America and about 6% of all the arable land in the world.

As you can see, the biofuel craze puts further pressures on farmland demand.

So that’s where we are in a nutshell. For these reasons, I’m bullish on agriculture assets in general, and farmland in particular.

The other appealing aspect of farmland is how well it did in the inflationary environment of the 1970s. I think we’re headed to another 1970s-style inflation. Right now, we’re in the midst of a (temporary) deflation wave sweeping over commodity-land. But the dollar, as we know, is not hard to reproduce.

Governments, particularly in times of crisis – like now – have a tendency to flood the system with money in an attempt to “goose” the economy. Mostly, such efforts have succeeded in destroying the value of the currency in question.

Anyway, if you believe that we will continue to feel the bane of inflation, then farmland’s performance in the 1970s will give you some comfort.

So you see that while you lost half of your money in the S&P 500, your farmland kept its value nicely. Again, I think that’s rooted in the fact that farmland is intrinsically useful. It produces useful and needed things.

Now imagine what farmland might do in today’s climate, in which you have not only the likely prospect of inflation, but also a tightening supply of farmland and rising demand for crops. I imagine you’ll do quite a bit better than the 1970s.

If you are interested in investing in farmland, contact Stephen Johnston directly at sjohnston@agcapita.com and tell him I sent you. Johnston’s funds invest in farmland. As stated simply on Agcapita’s Web site: “Agcapita provides investors with the operating and capital appreciation returns from owning Canadian farmland.” Jim Rogers, of Investment Biker fame, has recently agreed to join Agcapita’s advisory board.

At a recent event in Toronto, Rogers suggested to the assembled investment bankers that they “sell their houses in the city, move to Saskatchewan, buy tractors and farmland and start farming.”

It’s a true special situation, and it’s not for everybody, but maybe it’s for you.

Check in tomorrow for the third and final installment on investing in the North American agriculture boom…And this time, we’ll suggest a publicly traded stock.

Chris Mayer
for The Daily Reckoning Australia

Chris Mayer
Chris Mayer is a veteran of the banking industry, specifically in the area of corporate lending. A financial writer since 1998, Mr. Mayer's essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications, from the Mises.org Daily Article series to here in The Daily Reckoning. He is the editor of Mayer's Special Situations and Capital and Crisis - formerly the Fleet Street Letter.
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Comments

  1. Chris, Before you invest in land in the high latitudes I suggest you do some research into climate change, not from the near hysterical global warming lobby, but scientists who are prepared to think a bit deeper. There are plenty predicting a coming decade or so of quite cold conditions, which will reduce farm output in high latitudes. I don’t disagree with your suggestion to invest in land but I am biased as my wife is heir to a good sized plot in a temperate climate.

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  2. Chris. We have already seen the bio-fuel scare tactics late year when bio-fuels were blamed for pushing up food prices…there was no hard data to support this view but the greenies and oil speculators loved it and guess what? Prices for wheat etc have all come back down..imagine that. Secondly there is no shortage of farmland globally, there is however an issue of farmland utilization. (Zimbabwe being a good example and even in Japan much farmland is idle) The same old argument about the world not having enough food to feed itself pops up every 10 or so years but as always many analysts forget there are people in little white coats working all the time on ways to increase the yields from crops etc. and we have barely even got going with aquaculture. (and we tend to forget how much food is thrown away or dumped every day) I would think investing in good quality farmland might be a good investment, but I would prefer to get my tips from “the man on the land” so to speak, not from bankers. Your article actually reads like a long sale pitch complete with contact details..hardly independent I would suggest.

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