Return to search

Institutional investment in US farmland a ‘critical issue’

Family Farms Action, an organization that will soon have the power to support political candidates, plans to research how institutions can support rural communities yet opposes foreign investment in farmland. We spoke with Joe Maxwell, its president and chief executive, to find out more.

Joe Maxwell

Family Farms Action, an organization that will soon have the power to support political candidates, plans to research how institutions can support rural communities yet oppose foreign investment in farmland. We spoke with Joe Maxwell, its president and chief executive, to find out more.

Institutional investment into US farmland raises critical issues that are currently under review, according to a new advocacy organization opposing agricultural consolidation.

Upon announcing its founding earlier this month, Missouri-based Family Farm Action stated its intent to protect American family farms and rural communities from multinational monopolies it described as “destroying rural economies and a way of life.”

The organization published a white paper detailing how widespread agricultural consolidation has negatively impacted rural America and announced its plans to conduct polls and research, advocate for state-level legislation and encourage national adoption of a farmer’s bill of rights.

FFA president and chief executive Joe Maxwell told Agri Investor that the role of institutional investors in the challenges presented in the white paper is a “critical issue” that is among those under review. In light of the tremendous capital needs of US agriculture, Maxwell said, how to approach the role of institutional investors active in US farmland has been a subject of debate within the organization.

“There are those that believe that these funds are just evil,” Maxwell said. “If you are an investor in them and you want to get all you can get, then they’re just great. All I’m suggesting is that we think there’s an opportunity to help direct positive investment for the investor as well as the community being invested in.”

For example, Maxwell said, he would encourage agricultural funds active in US farmland markets to invest in local food systems highlighted in a recent report from the Federal Reserve of St. Louis.

During the 1980s farm crisis, Maxwell said, insurance and investment companies that wound up owning American farmland chose to provide farmers with the opportunity to repurchase the properties at a price that produced a profit, while still leaving the farming community in a solid economic position.

“We are reviewing how those transitions occurred in the farm community and hopefully will have further data. We will be suggesting policies for organizations that have that kind of wealth concentrated in funds,” Maxwell said, estimating that resulting research would be published in six months.

A national security issue

Employing a fundraising approach modeled on that of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, FFA has raised a total of about $20,000 through donations averaging $50 since its launch earlier this month, according to Maxwell.

While there are existing NGOs that advocate for rural America, Maxwell explained, FFA is the first to be taxed in such a way as to allow it to explicitly support electoral candidates. Maxwell said that the organization’s initial focus will be on Michigan, Montana, Wisconsin, Missouri and Pennsylvania, with plans calling for an extension into other states where agriculture plays a dominant role in the economy such as Oklahoma, Illinois and Ohio.

Though Maxwell repeatedly expressed interest in establishing dialogue with investors about challenges facing rural America, one area where FFA’s positions are likely to come into conflict with many investors’ business models is the area of ownership, where the organizations’ positions are more clearly articulated.

“We are taking a hard line on foreign interest investment in farmland,” Maxwell said. “We think it’s a national security issue. We think it’s a food security issue. We think it’s a rural economic issue.”