Wednesday, Sep 28, 2016
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Investing afield

New breed of farmer shakes up heartland

Braden-Janowski-new-type-of-farmer-in-heartland-07-16-2011

Braden Janowski walks through a watermelon field in Niles, Mich. The 33-year-old software executive from Tulsa successfully bid $4 million for the 430-acre farm at auction. He is among a growing number of rich investors with no ties to farming who are confident enough to wager on a patch of earth.

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NEW YORK -- Braden Janowski has never planted seeds or brought in a harvest. He doesn't even own overalls.

Yet when 430 acres of Michigan cornfields were auctioned last summer, it was Mr. Janowski, a 33-year-old software executive, who had the winning bid. It was so high -- $4 million, 25 percent above the next highest -- that some farmers stood, shook their heads, and left. Mr. Janowski figures he got the land cheap.

"Corn back then was around $4," he said from his Tulsa, Okla., office, stealing a glance at prices per bushel on his computer. Corn hit almost $8 in June and trades now at about $7.

A new breed of gentleman farmer is shaking up the heartland. Rich investors with no ties to farming are confident enough to wager big on a patch of earth -- betting it's a smart investment because food only will get more expensive worldwide. Iowa farmland values have almost doubled in six years. In Nebraska and Kansas, it's up over 50 percent.

"I never thought prices would get this high," says Robert Huber, 73, who just sold his 500-acre corn and soybean farm in Carmel, Ind., for $3.8 million, or $7,600 an acre, triple what he paid for it a decade ago.

Buyers say soaring farm values simply reflect fundamentals. Crop prices have risen because food demand is growing around the world as supplies of arable land shrink.

But land values could fall if low interest rates disappear.

For now, though, investors can't seem to get enough of it.

At a recent auction in Iowa, the 50 or so farmers who showed up withheld their bids out of respect for a beloved local farmer who had rented the land for two decades and wanted to own it. But his final bid of $1.1 million was topped by a California insurance executive.

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