A leading New York-based hedge fund is moving into agriculture through a vehicle called the American Farmland Company. Optima has $6 billion funds under management. It plans to start its swoop by investing in arable land in Arizona and vineyards in California.
It has no European plans at present and the predominantly smaller nature of most farms in Europe may make it a less attractive location. Even though the US subsidises its farms, especially its larger ones, making farm investment even more attractive, the sheer complexity and the CAP and the uncertainties surrounding its future may be an off putting factor. In the States the initial plan envisages up to 15 farms with an average size of 500 acres, so the involvement is modest.
It is the longer-term strategy that is interesting. Dixon Boardman, Optima's chief executive, believes that economic recovery, continued population growth and increased incomes, especially in emerging markets, will create increasing demand for food. The diminishing availability of arable land, especially in China, is also seen as a key factor. In other words, a food security crisis leading to increasing prices is seen as being on the agenda.
Boardman argues that farmland is an asset class that has been overlooked by many investors. I am not so sure that is so true in the UK where interest has waxed and waned over the years with companies like Sentry Farming eventually pulling out of farm management. Boardman argues that in the US farmland has generated revenues exceeding 15 per cent per annum in the past five years, but part of that has been fed by the biofuels boom which is of questionable net environmental value. He also points out that the farming sector has low debt which is an attraction in the current crisis.
The sector produced a return of 31.7 per cent in America between June 2007 and June 2009, according to the National Farming Index. Over the same period the S&P 500 index declined 35.9 per cent.
Only a small proportion of American farmland, estimated to have a value of around $2 trillion, is owned by institutional investors. Boardman is confident that farmers will sell up: 'Farming is much more than a commercial choice than a lifestyle choice in America. A lot of these farmers are getting old and the next generation is not always interested in taking over these farms.'
In the UK farmland values in southern England have long been boosted by interest from the City. Sporting assets such as shooting and fishing are a key attraction, along with opportunities to stable and exercise horses. However, these activities may be undertaken alongside a commercially managed farming operation. There may be inheritance tax advantages in investing in farmland.