Last week Peoples Company hosted the annual Land Investment Expo (Land Expo) in downtown Des Moines. Here are a few takeaways that stood out to me from the day.
1. Technology is a wonderful thing
I’m sure many people braver than I trekked downtown to see the event in person but I will never know. Snug as a bug in a rug, I tuned in to the Land Expo from the warmth and comfort of my kitchen Tuesday morning while the Des Moines metro received somewhere between eight and 11 inches of snow the last time I checked.
I must say in an age where an “online option” is becoming common practice, this was one of the best online event platforms I’ve encountered.
2. Even people in California wonder what is going on in California
Something not widely known about me is that I was born in California. My parents met while my dad was in the U.S. Navy, stationed in San Diego. My family moved to Iowa when I was six and I’ve lived here ever since. I don’t know if that means I can’t say I’m a “native Iowan” but I sure feel like one.
As an Iowan, when I talk to folks around here, I get the sense there is confusion and frustration over some of the policies enacted in the state I briefly called home. One example I remember vividly from my time working with the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association was the states mandate to ban the sale of new liquid fuel light-duty vehicles by 2035 in favor of electric vehicles, limiting opportunities for biofuel blends.
What I learned from the Land Expo was there are voices from inside the state also questioning its approach to agriculture and energy. In a session titled “California Ag and the Political Consequences,” California State Representative James Gallagher lamented the state’s bureaucratic “edicts” farmers have to contend with and left those in the audience from other states with a warning to do things differently.
3. We need a lot more windmills
During his lunchtime keynote address, Dave Muth, the managing director of asset management for Peoples Company’s capital markets team, discussed opportunities for agriculture as the world tackles the challenge of achieving net-zero emissions goals by 2050.
One fact he shared stood out to me as a clear indication of the work to be done and the opportunity that exists.
In the state of Iowa alone, there are nearly 6,300 wind turbines today. To achieve net-zero goals, the state will need almost 48,000.
4. The average person lives 30,000 days
This fun fact was provided by Brad Griffin, marketing director for AcreValue. His point? Don’t waste time with inefficiency.
In his breakout session, titled “Navigating the Land Market in 2024: Staying in Front and Outpacing Competition” Griffin encouraged attendees to embrace new technology that can help them increase efficiency (such as AcreValue’s database).
Other tips he discussed included finding ways to reduce overhead expenses and strive for continuous improvement within the operation. He listed learning from failures, learning new skills, and being willing to implement new processes as examples.
5. It’s OK to Doubleback
Perhaps the most exciting keynote speaker on the agenda was former NFL quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Following his NFL career, the audience learned, Bledsoe “doubled back” to his hometown of Walla Walla, Washington and started Doubleback winery.
On stage with the event’s emcee Eric O’Keefe, Bledsoe discussed many aspects of the winery and wine making, including his views on sustainability. He said to him, sustainability means three things: taking care of the land, taking care of the people working at the winery, and building a successful business.
The pair also discussed the Walla Walla area’s qualifications for good wine production. He explained his interest in wine goes back as far as his time in the NFL. He and his wife would throw dinner parties for teammates and encourage everyone to bring a bottle of wine for a blind taste test. He told Land Expo attendees they would be surprised how often the bottles from Walla Walla won against wines from more well-known wine-producing regions.
6. Expect long-term farmland value growth
Bruce Sherrick, director of the TIAA Center for Farmland Research at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne, during his afternoon keynote address provided attendees with some economic and policy context surrounding the farmland market right now.
“I’m as confused as I’ve ever been about where farmland markets are going.”
He unpacked several factors, including what he called “the three I’s”, interest rates, inflation, and income, but essentially concluded:
“I’m as confused as I’ve ever been about where farmland markets are going. I’m still very, very optimistic in the long run. I just don’t know quite what to do with the next couple of years, in my own mind…. If we got a 5% pullback, I wouldn’t be surprised. If we get a 5% run up, I won’t be surprised. But in the long run, I won’t believe any story today that doesn’t include growing values of farmland.”
7. Complying with existing law on foreign ownership is challenging
Saving perhaps the most controversial topic for last, the event wrapped up with a panel of experts on the topic of foreign ownership of of American farmland. Among the topics discussed were the challenges of complying with federal and state laws and the appetite for federal guidance on the issue.
At a federal level, there are reporting requirements for foreign owners of American farmland, but several states also have their own reporting laws as well as restrictions on foreign ownership. Panelists discussed the ambiguity that exists at both levels of government on this issue.
“Reporting is less problematic than restriction,” says Todd Friedman, partner at Stoel Rives law firm. “From a compliance point of view, if I’m not sure whether my client needs to report or not, I can tell them let’s report and whatever that means, we can do that at the end of the day and that will check the box if it needed to have been checked. It becomes much harder when we’re trying to do an analysis of some of these state statutes, for instance, and trying to figure out if a certain transaction is permissible.”
He says if the answer isn’t clear, it halts the transaction because moving forward would expose clients to risk. He also noted the issue is ripe for preemption, which he explains is a concept in law in which the federal government enacts a law that provides a framework for the states.
“There are a lot of unknowns and that creates some problems in having a vibrant market,” he says.
The Land Expo wrapped up Tuesday afternoon but Iowa’s weather was just getting going as a second blizzard hit later in the week. But before it did, on the only day of the week we didn’t get more snow, Thursday, the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association hosted its annual Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit. Keep an eye out for my takeaways from my in-person coverage of that event.