Farm futures: private equity goes organic

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Articles - May 2013
Monday, April 29, 2013

At Farmland’s 1,000-acre Corvallis farm, the sense of passionate engagement on the part of Bradford and his current tenant-farmer partners is palpable. He is slightly professorial, ready to deeply discuss soil fertility, portable henhouse design or the life cycle of lichens, all in the space of two hours. At Farmland, Bradford’s primary role is land management, and he uses Google Earth to demonstrate to his visitor how organizing land rotations is a bit like laying a puzzle, with some pieces functioning as paddocks for nibbling sheep, others as home ground for hundreds of laying hens in their portable henhouses, some lying fallow or growing new pasture grass (and grass seed), and others fostering grain or veggie crops.

Bradford says Oregon was the perfect place for Farmland to start looking for land back in 2009-2010, as the bursting of the housing bubble caused the state’s grass-seed and nursery industries to suffer setbacks (the Corvallis main acreage is a former grass-seed farm).

Part of Farmland’s attraction for investors is the focus on pastured production on a larger scale than what sustainable agriculture has been able to achieve. One of the most famous sustainable farm operations, Joel Salatin’s Polyface farm in Virginia, is 500 acres. One thousand acres is Bradford’s idea of a good start size.

Part of Farmland’s model hinges on finding farmers willing to lease with Farmland LP rather than own their own land. Those farmer-partners the company is now working with insist the deal is a good one. Karen Wells and her husband, Neal, spent four years searching for an Oregon property from which to launch their pastured poultry operation. As Neal was an accountant by trade, the pair was able to realistically run the numbers when assessing prospective land purchases. “We had the ability to do the financial analysis,” Karen says, “but the math never worked.” Karen says her family’s process made the ideal of land ownership less attractive.

“We know too many family farms going under … the next generation is not necessarily interested in farming, there’s a profit problem, etc.,” she says. “Now there are farmers out there saying to us, ‘But you are not going to own the land,’ and I say, ‘Exactly. It’s an albatross.’”

After realizing that farmers like the Wells also need seed money, Bradford and Wichner went back to their investor group and formed a separate LLC called Vitality Farms to invest in both livestock and product innovation on Farmland acreage.



 

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