Farm futures: private equity goes organic

Farm futures: private equity goes organic

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BY APRIL STREETER

0513 FarmFutures 01
Farmer and Ph.D. biologist Jason Bradford takes a pasture-based approach to agriculture that puts livestock back on medium-size farms.
// Photo by Eric Näslund

While farmers may dream of rain showers on demand and lush pastures generating bumper crops, their nightmares are generally financial. Farmland LP, a private equity fund in Oregon, is upending the traditional (some would say dysfunctional) financial model that leads to those nightmares while practicing sustainable, organic and pasture-based farming methods to boot.

In spite of Oregon’s surplus of young farmers armed with optimism and a desire to work in agriculture, farming in 2013 is roughly divided between conventional, large-scale commodity crop farms that tend to get financing and subsidies, and smaller, sometimes struggling family-style farming operations that don’t. In addition, though organic cultivation entered the farming picture over three decades ago, conversion of land to organic is happening at a slower rate than demand for organic products, according to Cathy Greene of the USDA’s Economic Research Service. Add to this the advanced average age of the American farmer (59), and the rising costs of fuel and fodder, and it is a potent recipe for agricultural stagnation.

Farmland LP, the brainchild of farmer and Ph.D. biologist Jason Bradford and financial manager Craig Wichner, aims to break out of this paradigm and find a middle ground. Farmland is neither a typical agricultural farm venture nor a conventional financial instrument. It is a 4-year-old private equity fund based in both Oregon and California, with almost 90 investors, and is on its way to amassing $50 million in capital.

Instead of the typical U.S. model, in which larger acreages are passed on through family inheritance or owned by corporations, Farmland is two managers using investor funds to purchase conventional mid-size farms in both Oregon (around 1,000 acres thus far) and California (5,300 acres). Once converted to certified organic acreage, Farmland’s holdings are put into a newfangled land-management system that is actually based on a more old-fashioned rotation of plots between growing pasture, grazing livestock and cultivating different crops in order to boost soil fertility without chemical fertilizers. And unlike the one-man-one-tractor model of agriculture, in which a few farmers work vast swathes of land in monocrops, or the sustainable farm ideal in which a farmer takes a small patch of ground and coaxes multiple foods from it, Farmland’s model is novel. Different farming experts will ply their trades on the same plots of ground as these pieces of land are moved through rotation.