Back in the 1990s I was involved in a research project led by Will Coleman from Canada which looked at how farmers got their finance. I interviewed all the clearing banks in Britain and Ireland, plus a specialist institution called the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation which was set up by government in the 1920s but by then was being absorbed into the private sector.
The general pattern was for banks to have a specialist agricultural manager at head office who, with local managers, kept in touch with the farming community. Farmers were seen as a very safe bet. They rarely defaulted and, even if they did, you ultimately had the land as an asset, although banks were very reluctant to foreclose. In many ways it was a very traditional form of banking. A relative who is a farmer was tipped off by his bank manager about a suitable farm to buy to diversify his business.
There's still plenty of need for finance for land and capital equipment. Those who inherit a farm sometimes have to buy out siblings. They may also want to buy additional areas of land to secure economies of scale. Finance is important if agriculture is to meet the challenge of increasing and more sophisticated demand and relatively finite supply, particularly of land suitable for farming. Food production will need to rise by at least 60 per cent by 2050 to feed a rapidly growing world population that is increasingly able to demand more resource intensive foods such as meat which create additional demand for animal feed.
However, since the financial crisis banks have been cutting their loan books, while the price of land continues to rise, stimulated by the availability of subsidies, good long-term demand for food, tax breaks and, in parts of the UK, the dual use of farms for sporting purposes. However, new types of finance provider are emerging like Aquila Capital of Hamburg.
Aquila actually buys equity stakes in a farm which could be as much as 70 per cent. However, they claim that it works more like a debt. They receive a guaranteed 3 per cent a year, although there might be circumstances in which the farmer had to borrow to meet this requirement, increasing the debt burden. The farmer receives the next tranche of income and the remainder is split 70-30 in Aquila's favour. It is envisaged that such investments will yield pre-tax, post-free returns of 5-7 per cent a year which are attractive in current circumstances. Savings accounts are typically paying less than 2 per cent and relatively few companies pay dividends above 5 per cent (and may not be able to sustain them). 4 per cent would be a good return on an income fund, although you should be able to get over 5 per cent from a peer lender, depending on how much risk you might be able to take.
Whether it is a good deal for farmers is an interesting question, but needs must. Aquila also claim that after 15 years or so farmers will have accumulated enough capital to buy them out.