Farmland as a Diversifying and Sustainable Asset Class

As the COVID-19 pandemic highlights, a robust and sustainable agri-food sector from “farm to fork,” is vital to our society’s long-term health and prosperity. Today, governments and industry stakeholders, are working toward a more stable, sustainable and resilient agri-food system for the future, which presents opportunities, including investments in farmland, agri-infrastructure (e.g., cold-storage facilities, local greenhouses), agri-food companies (e.g., alternative protein)and agri-tech companies. Three investment industry experts on farmland, comment on the role of farmland in an institutional portfolio to ag investing aligning with sustainability.

Bernice Miedzinski

StarBridge Capital Ltd

Bernice Miedzinski, President of StarBridge Capital Ltd., a merchant bank focusing on the agri-food sector, comments on how institutional investors view the role of agriculture in their portfolios.

1.What is the role of agriculture (“Ag”) in an institutional portfolio?

The role of Ag in a portfolio depends on the Ag investment, as the Ag value chain includes upstream real assets, such as farmland, water rights and agri-infrastructure, and downstream private/public equity assets, such as agri-food companies, as well as growth equity/venture capital assets, such as agri-tech. In general, Ag investments are diversifiers and additive in a portfolio context.

Investors hold Ag assets in different “buckets” in their portfolios:

  • Natural Resources: Ag investments in this bucket are typically vertically-integrated agri-food companies, which span farmland, water rights, agri-infrastructure, as well as processing and distribution assets.
  • Real Assets: Some investors hold farmland as part of their real assets, together with real estate and infrastructure, while others hold farmland as part of their real estate allocation.
  • Real-Return Bond Equivalent: Some investors may buy-and-lease unlevered farmland and hold it as part of a liability-driven-investing strategy (i.e., similar to a real-return bond to match liabilities), given farmland’s ongoing “harvestable” returns and long-term duration.
  • Opportunistic/Private Equity: Some investors view Ag as a unique diversifier and hold it in an opportunistic bucket, while others hold agri-food companies in their private equity portfolio.
  • Climate Hedge: Finally, some investors hold Canadian farmland as an overlay on their total portfolio as a “climate hedge,” as a warming climate will enhance Canadian farmland’s productivity, especially given Canada’s fresh-water resources. Similarly, others hold Australian water rights as a hedge, as they expect these long-term real assets to appreciate, given the uncertainty of Australia’s climate variability and rainfall.

Jay A. Yoder

Global Strategy Leader,
Natural Resources
Mercer Alternative

Jay Yoder, CFA, Global Strategy Leader, Natural Resources at Mercer Alternatives, comments on the key factors affecting Ag returns and the alignment of Ag investing with sustainable goals.

2. What are the key factors impacting Ag returns?

Ag returns are affected by two key macro factors: the weather and government policies. With few exceptions, these factors cannot be controlled by managers, but can only be mitigated through diversification.

At the property level, returns are generally driven by the land’s current and future productivity. This encompasses many factors, including soil health, access to water, operational efficiency (or lack thereof), and improvements (or impairments) to the land and related infrastructure. The ultimate goal of course, is to increase the volume and value of crops produced and then market them in the most profitable manner, thereby maximizing returns and farmland values.

3. How is Ag investing aligned with pension funds’ sustainable goals?

Investing in farmland aligns strongly with many pension funds’ sustainable goals. Most quality Ag managers manage their farms with as little negative environmental impact as possible (i.e., “sustainable Ag”). However, focus is now shifting to “regenerative Ag,” a term applied to more strenuous environmental efforts, which includes reducing disturbance of the soil, improving the water cycle, minimizing chemical inputs, and greater bio-diversity. It’s also important to ensure that productive farmland is not paved over for housing developments, strip malls, or industrial parks.

The recently-developed Leading Harvest’s Farmland Sustainability Standard will likely lead to even better environmental efforts, and recognition of such efforts, by Ag managers. Farming also aligns with several United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs”) including: Zero Hunger (SDG 2), Decent Work and Economic Growth (SDG 8), and Life on Land (SDG 15).

Andrea Gruza

Vice President
Capital Markets
Bonnefield Financial Inc

Andrea Gruza, Vice President, Capital Markets, at Bonnefield Financial Inc., Canada’s largest farmland manager, comments on how investors can help farmers achieve their sustainable goals and how COVID-19 has impacted Ag investing in Canada.

4. How can Ag investors help farmers achieve their sustainable goals?

In my view, there is a natural alignment between progressive, high-quality farming operations and sustainability, as it makes good business sense for farmers to ensure the long-term health and quality of their soils and operations, to drive long-term value. Farmland investing supports farmers by providing them with financing to optimize their operations and to invest in sustainable best practices.

Additionally, with the right management, farmland plays a role as a carbon sink, which can be used to move overall investment portfolios closer to net-zero emission targets.

5. How has COVID-19 impacted Ag investment opportunities in Canada?

The Ag industry fared well through COVID-19 relative to other industries, but individual experiences varied, depending on factors such as end markets, supply chains, and the use of seasonal labour.

From an investment perspective, numerous positive conditions are creating a very attractive environment for farmland investments. As a result of COVID-19, Bonnefield saw decreased transaction activity in 2020, which has now resulted in pent-up demand for farmland and related assets. This demand, combined with high commodity prices, a low interest rate environment, and many farmers flush with cash from good harvest conditions across much of Canada, is likely to drive farmland values higher in the near term. Also, as we begin to see the effects of recent monetary policy actions, Bonnefield expects to see farmland act as an inflation hedge in a portfolio.

The above speakers will present on “Farmland as a diversifying and sustainable asset class” at Private Markets Virtual Forum.