One of my earliest memories is eating cow feed. They were round clusters of oats, and as I recall, they were delicious. I grew up spending weekends on my grandparent's dairy farm down the road from our house, learning how to milk cows and pick vegetables. It was a great way to grow up.
Sitting here in our offices on State Street in lower Manhattan, I was surprised how this month's feature story, "Rise of the Really Alts," (penned by Dave Lindorff) brought me right back to that farm. I thought about how my grandparents' lives would have been different if someone like U.S. Trust's Ray Schuville and his team had come along and offered to buy their property, and maybe leased it back to them and helped them run it more efficiently. (Although I'm not sure Grandpa would have been too eager to do business with some city slickerwhich he defined as pretty much anyone who owned a tie.)
As more of those city slickers snatch up farmland as investments, there are some worries that prices are already beginning to approach bubble territory. A recent story in The New York Times says that even though drought conditions have ravaged the Midwest, farmland prices are hitting all-time highs due to surging demand for corn. Investment companies are snapping up farms, driving prices even higher. TIAA-CREF, the story says, manages a fund that owns more than 600 farms.
The end game, as we know all too well, is that land prices will continue to rise as long as the value of the crops being grown on that land does, too. Any farmer worth his or her salt has been through a boom and a bust caused by fluctuating government subsidies, policies or market trends that createor killthe market for the crop they grow. When that bust comes, the dropping value of the crops will drag the price of the land down with it, and only the fully diversified, highly non-correlated crop portfolio will keep these direct investments from tanking, too.
Advisors should be warned that if they wish to get into this particular segment of the market, there will be a very different kind of education involved than that required for an alt mutual fund or an options trade. And it might not hurt to know what cow feed looks like.