Letter Re: Wait and Buy Farm Ground Near the Bottom of the Market

I wanted to address some of the discussion about buying [farm] ground. I know the situation may be different in the West since the flood of Californians may never result in lower prices than are currently available. But the following is my view of the current situation in the Midwest . Keep in mind that farmland has rarely acted in the same way as housing prices have. For one there is not the mass subsidization of farm land purchasing like housing. (think GI loans, first time buyers loans, Freddie Mac and Sallie Mae, etc)

The perils and pitfalls of land ownership is completely subjective depending on your region of the country and a host of other site or region specific issues. For instance, in the Midwest , good cropland away from metropolitan areas was selling for $2,000-$2,500 an acre in 2001 and 2002. It is now regularly being priced in the $6,000 area (it has roughly doubled) and between 10,000-$50,000 and acre the closer you get to a big city. It seems it has become fashionable for investors in New York and Los Angeles to buy cropland and take advantage of the ethanol boondoggle or the high crop prices. Even trash land that was good for nothing but hunting has soared upwards of $3,000 an acre (you couldn’t give it away for $300 an acre 15 years ago. It seems that everyone is trying to buy hunting ground to go into business as an outfitter or hunt deer. Many of these people live half way across the country (Mississippi, Colorado, Alaska , Pennsylvania, et cetera). It doesn’t help that every hunting magazine encourages this in the pitiful quest to shoot trophy deer (who got that way by eating corn and soybeans off of productive farmland all their life).

On its face you would think that the cost of land would do nothing but go up in price. I happen to remember the same thing around here during the 1970s and 1980s before the price of land collapsed. The commodities bull market of the 1970s encouraged every farmer and speculator to run out and purchase land. The run up started around $500 an acre to a top of around $4000-5000. Then the crop prices collapsed and farm land could be bought for $1,000-to-$1,500 an acre in the mid 1980s. If the current scenario turns out to be a similar multi-decade commodities boom that later collapses as the prices get ahead of themselves, the same scenario may present itself.

The nature of our semi-capitalist system tells us that there will be booms and busts in every market or sector. For many people it may make more sense to purchase a smaller piece of property first for a retreat and plan on buying more later when the inevitable collapse/stall in price happens. You may come across a once in a lifetime deal that throws this whole idea out the window. Many younger people feel like they have to go into debt and struggle to get all they need to “survive”. Your turn will come and at some point when you are more financially secure you may be able to buy a piece of property at a more reasonable price. Many of the people buying now are not even remotely attached to the land/locale and their interest will wane over time. Others will find their debt load too much to handle. At some point they might beg you take farm ground off their hands at a 50% loss to themselves. I know that at least two plots of my in-laws farms where purchased during the Great Depression. Put yourself in the position of having ready cash to buy ground when no one else does. – A.T.

JWR Replies: I agree wholeheartedly with your observations. Please note that I specifically wrote about patience, buying at the bottom, and watching foreclosure listings. That is where folks will find those "50 cents on the dollar" bargain retreat properties.