Ceres targets $150m agribusiness vehicle as it expands beyond farmland

The Indiana-headquartered farmland manager has hired Rick Bodio and Finley Merrill this year to support the expansion.

Ceres Partners is targeting $150 million for a vehicle supporting the historically farmland-focused manager’s expansion into agribusiness, according to a source familiar with the strategy.

Ceres declined to comment.

In February, Indiana-headquartered Ceres hired former Manulife Investment Management deputy chief investment officer Rick Bodio to serve as Boston-based managing director in a role focused on the expansion of its private equity investments.

At the time, chief executive Perry Vieth told Agri Investor that after 15 years operating the firm’s open-ended farmland fund, Ceres has identified attractive opportunities in agribusiness over the past five years.

“We’ve decided that we want to have more of a presence,” said Vieth. “In doing that, we wanted a senior hire. Rick is that senior hire and we’re excited about his background and experience and the fact his vision aligns with ours.”

In March, the firm added Finley Merrill to serve in another agribusiness-focused role, according to his LinkedIn profile. Merrill announced his new position in a post on March 6 that described an agribusiness investor role that will include working alongside Bodio and Ceres director Andrew Howell. Merrill most recently served as chairman of Southern Africa-focused food chain developer Mulanje Tea Imports, of which he is also the founder.

The profile shows that prior to founding MTI in December 2015, Merrill also held positions with Anterra Capital, AgIS Capital and aluminum producer Alcoa, among others.

“I step into the investor role knowing how hard it is to start and grow an agribusiness,” he wrote. “It was not a straight line and it was made possible by support from a community of founders, dedicated employees, mentors and industry partners.”

Ceres’ advisory committee includes Bennett Goodman, co-founder of Blackstone credit arm GSO Capital Partners, according to the February statement announcing Bodio’s hire.

Goodman told Agri Investor he has looked to be helpful to Ceres as the firm expands into agribusiness. He declined to share the size of his investment the firm, which he said grew from a fund position into an equity stake largely on the strength of his confidence in Vieth and his team.

“As an LP, I’ve been very pleased with Ceres,” he said. “They are in a really good point in the cycle in a cyclical business. They got through the tough part because of all their discipline.”

Ceres’ non-farmland portfolio includes investments in Seattle-headquartered controlled-environment ag software and hardware provider iUNU and Pure Green Farms, a South-Bend, Indiana leafy greens producer. The firm also participated in a $20 million Series A in April 2021 for Tortuga AgTech, a Denver, Colorado-headquartered robotic strawberry harvester producer.

Ceres director Andrew Howell discussed the firm’s focus on CEA in a November 2021  podcast in which he described the firm’s observation of the market’s evolution and challenges associated with recent growth in investor interest.

“My advice to new investors is: take your time, be measured. Really focus on the underlying economics, rather than the very good story,” Howell said. “ It starts with the good story, don’t get me wrong. Knowing you are going to have a competitive advantage when prices come down and margins get compressed, the low-cost winners are going to be the ones who are here at the end of the day.”