Bonnefield Newsletter – Q3 2021

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An Increasing Focus on AgTech

Those who follow the agricultural industry will be aware of the increasing attention that agriculture technology (AgTech) firms are receiving, and with it, significant investment dollars. In fact, one of Canada’s largest institutional investors, the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan (OTPP) recently made its first AgTech investment through its venture capital arm, Teachers’ Innovation Platform. With the spotlight on the AgTech industry, we wanted to review the role that technology has played in agriculture and explore how ongoing innovation can drive industry performance through the lens of a farmland owner / investor.

Technology in Agriculture: A Driver of Productivity & Farmland Values

Innovation and technological advancements in agriculture have been around for as long as farming itself. The search for increased efficiency to meet growing consumer demands is not going away and significant technological advancements have been made in the agriculture industry over the past several decades. Today, technologies such as GPS Guidance for farming equipment and Site-Specific Crop Management practices allow farmers to be more precise and efficient in crop production. As a farmland owner, this raises a key question: how do technological advancements affect producer income and subsequently, farmland values?

For a conventional crop producer, farm income is a function of underlying commodity prices, expected crop yields, and the cost of crop production. Commodity prices are determined by the global market and, while producers can use certain marketing strategies to help reduce risk, individual producers cannot ultimately influence commodity prices. As such, farm operators looking to improve productivity, and thus profitability, can be better served by finding ways to boost crop yields and lower production costs to increase income.

Since farm incomes are a key driver of farmland value, the result of sustainable increases in overall farm profitability can be seen through appreciation of farmland values, making new advancement in AgTech interesting for not only the farm operator but the farmland investor as well.

Examples of AgTech Areas of Focus
Plant Breeding

While longer growing seasons resulting from climate change certainly play a role in increasing crop yields in certain geographies, advances in agricultural technology are also widely acknowledged as being a major driver of improved yields. Notably, there have been significant advancements in plant science and breeding over the past 30 years. Varieties of certain key crops, such as corn, soybeans, and canola can be engineered to mature over a specific number of growing days to accommodate local growing conditions and allow farmers to plan for crop maturity at desired times, or to be more resilient against certain diseases. This allows farmers to select and seed optimal plant varieties that are best suited to their location and the characteristics of their land.

Precision Agriculture

Precision agriculture (also referred to as Site Specific Crop Management) uses aerial and satellite imagery, weather data, and crop health indicators to enable farmers to be more exact in the planting of seeds and the application of fertilizer. For example, variable-rate fertilizer application allows producers to apply the ideal amount of fertilizer to different regions of a single field to maximize crop health and avoid unnecessary overuse of fertilizer. Beyond increasing crop yields, this technology also has considerable benefits from an environmental perspective as it reduces the overall amount of fertilizer required thus preserving supply and limiting unnecessary run-off. Other technologies, such as GPS guidance, have allowed for more accurate planting of crops and fewer wasted acres.

Larger, More Efficient Machinery

Technological advancements have also created significant cost savings in agriculture, and farming operations are larger and more efficient than ever. This is made possible by new technologies such as the large machines that allow producers to plant, fertilize, and harvest greater acreage in less time. Today, large tractors with planting implements spanning over 60 feet in width can cover over 300 acres in a single day, whereas the smaller 15-foot no-till drills of the past would have taken more than four days to cover the same amount of land.

What This Means for Farmland Values

Technological advancements have helped producers to increase yields, reduce costs and have ultimately had a positive impact on farm income and farmland values. As noted in our Q1 newsletter, there has been much excitement in the Canadian farmland market in the first half of 2021, attributable to commodity prices rising to multi-year highs, low transactional activity in 2020, and the prolonged low interest rate environment. However, these factors are cyclical and can shift in a relatively short period of time. In contrast, activities by farm operators and the agriculture sector as a whole, to develop and implement new technologies, increase yields, manage costs, and reduce their environmental footprints are something we believe will support the ongoing capital appreciation of Canadian farmland.

About Bonnefield Financial

Bonnefield is the foremost provider of land-lease financing for farmers in Canada. Bonnefield is dedicated to preserving farmland for farming, and the firm partners with growth-oriented farmers to provide farmland leasing solutions to help them grow, reduce debt, and finance retirement and succession. The firm’s investors are individuals and institutional investors who are committed to the long term future of Canadian agriculture. www.bonnefield.com

 

Contributing Authors:

Mitchell King
Associate, Investment Management

Lauren Michell
Director, Capital Markets

Bonnefield Newsletter – Q1 2021

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Canadian Farmland Poised For Growth

The mood in much of the Canadian agricultural community has been positive lately. Following several years of depressed agricultural commodity prices, there is a significant rebound in prices across multiple commodities. The last time we saw similar commodity price growth, combined with low interest rates was in 2011 which marked the beginning of several years of double digit increases in farmland values. While there is no guarantee that we will have the same outcome, the signs are very encouraging.

 

1. Increased Demand from China

The catalyst for this rebound has been a massive increase from China for feed, as it rebuilds its hog herds following the devastating impacts of the 2018 swine flu that resulted in a ~60% reduction of the country’s breeding sows by the second half of 2019 (1). We expect that the increase in demand from China should be longer lasting as it will likely take two to three years to rebuild the pig herds back to pre swine flu levels.

 

2. Severe Drought in South America

A severe drought in South America since last October drastically reduced supply from Brazil and Argentina – two major corn and soybean producers. While this offers short-term support to pricing, recent rains in the region should provide positive conditions for the current harvest.

 

3. Russian Export Tax on Wheat

Finally, prices are also seeing an impact from a recently announced export tax that Russia placed on its wheat producers in an attempt to reign in recent domestic food price inflation resulting from COVID-19. In 2015, this had a major impact on global wheat supply. We expect a similar impact this year with wheat prices increasing materially.

 

 

                                                                                                             Sources: OMAFRA, Grain Farmers of Ontario

 

Commodity Price Impact on Farmland Values

Given the magnitude of recent commodity price increases we took a look back to see what effect commodity prices have had on farmland values historically. Two notable characteristics emerge from this analysis.

 

1. Significant upside potential for farmland values resulting from a combination of high commodity prices and low borrowing costs.

This creates a favourable environment whereby farm profitability increases, leaving farm operators with more cash in their pockets. The combination of greater cash on hand and low borrowing costs facilitates an increase in farmland acquisitions. Having this combination of factors is important because, as we saw in 2007, an increase in commodity prices against the backdrop of high borrowing costs, did not see meaningful farmland value increases.

 

2. Farmland values have had historical downside protection through several years of significant commodity price decreases.

Not only have farmland values failed to track the declines in commodity pricing, they have actually continued to increase in value (albeit at a slower rate in years of significant commodity price declines.) This trend can be attributed to the favourable supply and demand dynamics that exist due to a limited supply of global arable farmland with an increasing demand for food. From 1961 to 2016 there was a 48% decline in hectares of arable land per person (2). This is attributable both to a growing population as well as a decline in total arable land from desertification and urbanization.

It is evident, based on historical analysis, that commodity prices can influence farmland values through enhanced farm profitability. Based on our experience of the last two decades, that influence is far more significant on the upside than it is on the downside.

 

What This Means For Farmland Values

While there is always potential for unforeseen events to arise, a review of current market conditions provides support for a positive outlook on farm prices. The combination of increasing commodity prices and low borrowing costs shows the potential for a return to farmland valuations reminiscent of the early 2010’s.

 

 

A Note on the Analysis

We focused our analysis on Ontario using the three main cash crops grown in the province: wheat, soybeans, and corn. According to data from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (“OMAFRA”), these three crops represent roughly 71% of the total cropland in Ontario based on seeded acres which makes this a meaningful, albeit simplifying, analysis for evaluating general trends in the province. In addition to commodity prices, we have also included the prime rate as a proxy for farmers’ borrowing costs, as this also has a significant influence on land values. The graph above illustrates the annual percentage change in commodity prices and Ontario farmland values against the prime rate. To capture historical commodity prices, we used a hypothetical commodity price index comprised of 40% soybeans, 40% corn and 20% wheat. This is representative of a typical five-year rotation for an Ontario farmer of two years planted to corn, two years planted to soybeans and one year to wheat.

 

About Bonnefield Financial

Bonnefield is the foremost provider of land-lease financing for farmers in Canada. Bonnefield is dedicated to preserving farmland for farming, and the firm partners with growth-oriented farmers to provide farmland leasing solutions to help them grow, reduce debt, and finance retirement and succession. The firm’s investors are individuals and institutional investors who are committed to the long term future of Canadian agriculture. www.bonnefield.com

 

Contributing Authors:

Jaime Gentles
Director, Investment Management

Jeff McAllister
Vice President Investments

Andrea Gruza
Vice President Capital Markets
(1)www.reuters.com/article/china-swinefever-pigs-idUSL4N2FC2RL
(2) – World bank. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.LND.ARBL.HA.PC