Is This the Crop That Saves Florida Agriculture?

by Tom Schenk

If you’ve driven through central and southern Florida over the last several years, you may have wondered why much of the land that used to grow oranges and grapefruit in central and southern Florida now sits fallow and choked with weeds? Most people are aware of the fatal citrus greening disease that has caused one of the greatest agricultural disasters in US history. Almost every remaining grove in the Sunshine State is infected with this disease as researchers struggle to find a cure with little to show for results.

In 2017, the growers who were still in the game were spending between $1,500-$2,500 per acre in expenses to coax a profitable citrus crop out of their dying groves. These efforts were met with almost ideal growing conditions and by all accounts it appeared that their efforts would be rewarded with one of the best crops they’d seen in years.

Until the arrival of Hurricane Irma which went through Florida like a chainsaw leaving no grove untouched.

Damage reports indicate that half or more of the unripen fruit is now laying on the ground while what remains in the trees is bruised or will eventually drop off in the coming weeks.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, many groves were left standing in water far beyond the critical 72 hours which is almost always fatal for citrus trees.

Directly and indirectly, Florida’s citrus industry creates almost 45,000 jobs which translate to almost a $9 billion contribution into Florida’s economy. Today’s citrus industry has shrunk by well over half from its peak in the late ‘90’s leaving rural towns and communities distressed and struggling to survive as families and individuals move away to find work elsewhere.  There are only 7 remaining processing plants in the state and it is highly questionable how many will remain open and viable when ultimate crop losses may be as high as 80%-90%.  There’s a point where it does not make economic sense to salvage the remaining fruit in a grove or open a processing assembly line for the smallest harvest since the 1940’s. Like any commercial real estate, ag land is generally priced as a function of its income earning value plus any development potential. Citrus grove and that used to be valued at $10,000 – $15,000 or more per acre now sells for less than half to a third of that.

But why can’t some other crop fill this void?  It’s not for lack of trying.

South Florida’s hundreds of thousands of acres of sandy, shallow soils and rainy climate narrow the field of viable crops that can be profitably grown in those conditions.  Afternoon rains continually flush fertilizers and chemicals out of the soils, into the drainage canals, and ultimately Florida’s coastal estuaries and Everglades. In spite of these challenges, many growers and outside investors have ventured into some alternative specialty crops such as peaches, blueberries, tomatoes, and strawberries.  Establishment costs, however, are very high.  In the case of blueberries, it could exceed $15,000 per acre! To make matters worse, growers have found themselves struggling with a diminishing supply of farm labor. And finally, whenever prices spike higher from either early season prices or if there is a production shortfall, floods of cheaper imports arrive in a matter of days from Mexico and South America.

  • So what can work in Florida’s unique agricultural ecosystem?

There is one ray of hope that shows great promise of restoring ag land values and revitalizing business in South Florida’s rural towns.  In 2011, an enterprising group of entrepreneurs from a company called TerViva began approaching some of the state’s largest citrus growers to establish some trial sites with a tropical/subtropical tree crop called pongamia. Pongamia is an oilseed tree that is native to Australia and India.  Conceptually, the crop is like growing soybeans on trees, but at yields 8x-10x over the best Iowa farmland. Pongamia is not new to Florida.  At the turn of the last century, it was introduced as a landscaping ornamental and today a few of these trees can still be found along the turnpike, shopping centers, and in parks in south Florida.

Creating a viable agricultural industry from scratch is not an easy task, but it has been done.  Soybeans were unheard of until they were introduced in the early 1930’s and palm oil trees were developed from the rubber plantations in Southeast Asia after WWII.  Interestingly, products from pongamia are thriving industries in India where the oil is used for industrial applications like fuel, lubricants, paints, surfactants, biopesticidal horticultural sprays, and more.  The “cake” or “meal” that remains after the oil is extracted is coveted as a great fertilizer that releases its nitrogen slowly so a plant can utilize it better. In India it is used to suppress soil-borne pests like nematodes that are the arch enemy of many of our food crops.

So what is the path to prove the viability of a new crop in the US – especially in such a challenging geography as Florida? Below is a checklist of the gauntlet it had to run.

  • Will the tree grow here?

This was the first order of business TerViva set out to prove to growers when they arrived in 2011.  The first grower who would listen to them was Ron Edwards CEO of Vero Beach – based Evans Properties. Edwards, former COO of Tropicana and co-founder of SoBe Beverages and Blue Buffalo Pet Foods, has a track record of spotting a good management team, a good business model, and an idea that had a good shot of succeeding.  Skepticism was high so Terviva offered to split the costs of the first trials.

The result was beyond expectations.  Growers such as Graves Brothers, US Sugar/Southern Gardens, DNE, Alico, Mosaic and others soon followed.  Around the state, the tree grew well in diverse sites with sandy soils, toxic soils, saline soils, and even Mosaic’s challenging clay reclamation soils. In 4 years the trees were 10’ to 16’ in height.

 

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Pongamia orchard in Florida – Photo by TerViva

The trials have shown that these trees survived hurricanes Mathew and Irma, 2 weeks in standing water, frosts, non-irrigated fields, poor soils, higher-salinity irrigation not suited for most other crops, sand, clay, pests, and heat. Indeed, pongamia can deal with Florida’s challenging climate and soils..

  • What are the costs to grow it?

Establishment costs are very similar to citrus.  Indeed, the first thing that growers noticed was that the tree could literally be dropped right into the existing citrus infrastructure. The trees cost about the same as citrus and the planting densities are equal to or slightly less than citrus. Some growers literally planted between the stumps of former orange trees. To date in Florida, no pesticides have been used.  This hardy tree has grown through a laundry list of tropical and subtropical pests that growers spend millions of dollars on to control.  The biggest annual expense is weed maintenance until that young tree can get some height and eventually shade out a lot of the undergrowth which can subsequently be managed with mowing. So annual maintenance costs tally to about $400-$500 per acre – about one third or one fourth of what citrus currently spend.  Some growers used a small amount of fertilizer, and many used none at all.  Pongamia is a legume so it enriches the soil by making its own nitrogen.

  • How is it harvested?

Almost all of the fruit and vegetable crops grown in Florida need manual farm labor and every year that has been more difficult and costly to come by. Conversely, a crew of 2 and a nut tree shaker like those used on pistachios or almonds can harvest a pongamia tree in 3-5 seconds.  Those cost benefits accrue directly to the bottom line.  For the past 2 years as some of the young trees have produced pods early, Terviva has put on grower demos to show how easy and fast the tree can be harvested.

  • Who’s going to process it?

The beauty of the pongamia industry is that everything about it is low-tech. The tree puts out a pod that is easily shelled with a nut sheller and crushed with conventional soybean crushing equipment.  It doesn’t require elaborate $100 million processing plants or exotic enzyme formulations to make it work. The bean inside that pod looks about the size and shape as a lima bean.  It consists of about 40% oil and the 60% balance is the remaining seedcake. In 2017, the forward-thinking Hardee County IDA and its head, Bill Lambert, unanimously voted to build the first pongamia crushing plant in Florida. Because of the elite varieties that Terviva is cultivating at various commercial greenhouses in the state, an acre of their trees is conservatively estimated to yield about 400 gallons of oil and almost 3 tons of seedcake!

  • Who’s going to buy the products?

This is where it gets interesting. There is a long buffet of diverse markets for this oilseed tree crop and therein lies one of its greatest advantages.  These profitable markets range at the low end from a feedstock for industrial oils, to feed, and all the way up to highly-valued biocontrol products for the organic agriculture.  Organic growers have long been familiar with the benefits of pongamia’s oil and meal products under the Indian name karanja.

Like soy, pongamia oil is a long-chain C18:1 compound that can readily be refined into biodiesel or bio-jet A fuel.  Those tests have been tested and validated by Shell, Valero, REG, and ARA Labs. Refiners view a pongamia crop in Florida as a new oilfield that faithfully produces oil every year. Fuel is the base-case end market and can produce fine investment returns.

Classified as a politically correct “non-food” feedstock it can be used to make biodegradable polymers such as fracking fluids, plastics, detergents, paints, and other industrial products.  Secondary compounds found in the oil have documented and long used in India as extraordinarily effective biopesticides as good as or more effective than more commonly known neem products that are widely used by organic farmers, gardeners, and in the fast growing cannabis industry.  Because of the lack of need for inorganic chemicals used in growing pongamia, these high-value end-products are in growing demand by organic feed and growing operations. Sales into these channels alone can double or triple the value of the cake and oil.

The seedcake or meal can be further refined to produce a (30%) high-protein animal feed, or simply be used as an environmentally-friendly, slow-release 4-1-1 fertilizer that plants can better utilize.  Because the backbone of the oil shares similar properties to various food oils, scientists have told Terviva that the secondary compounds could be stripped out to upgrade the oil to “food quality” which could be of great value in parts of the world where pongamia could be grown on a footprint not adaptable to traditional oilseed crops.

  • Bus 101

The arrival of the pongamia farming model into the staggering agricultural void created by the citrus greening disease could be a classic business school case study.  The trail has been blazed.  A deeper dive into this business model reveals some very unique attributes.  The trees high yields offer an extraordinary margin for error in any given crop year.  For many alternative oilseed row crops planted elsewhere in the US (often as a new rotational crop), the entire growing season can tolerate few hiccups or else the yields will have a difficult time justifying the risks of planting and new machinery investments.  Pongamia’s low annual maintenance costs also allow a lot of margin for adverse weather surprises.  Pongamia’s diverse downstream markets mitigate marketing risks.  Low-tech processing that can create products from fuel and feed to fertilizer and biocontrol horticultural sprays can allow plenty of flexibility to target up-cycling markets and reduce dependency on single consumer markets.  And depending on those markets, Terviva estimates that at maturity, the groves could generate a net income between $700- $1,500 per acre.

What would the ideal replacement crop look like if it showed up at growers’ doorstep? Probably something like pongamia.

From Inside the Pipeline: Energy & Ag in Hawaii

By Marie O’Grady, Elemental Excelerator Communications Coordinator

Exhaust poured from the truck as it came to a grinding halt at the base of a conveyor belt, delivering Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company’s last cane harvest, symbolizing the end of an era in Hawaii. As happened in Puerto Rico and Trinidad & Tobago, growing sugar in Hawaii was no longer profitable.

In early 2016, Alexander & Baldwin (A&B), the fourth largest land owner in Hawaii, announced the close of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company (HC&S), the state’s last large-scale sugar plantation. Over the years, HC&S had faced controversies around water, pesticides, and field burning, and in 2015, the company incurred a $30 million operating loss.

Alexander & Baldwin announced in early 2016 that all 36,000 acres of former HC&S land would be transitioned to diversified agriculture, such as energy crops, agroforestry, livestock, diversified food crops, and orchard crops. Last month, A&B announced a new partnership with TerViva to cultivate pongamia on 250 acres of former plantation land.

EEx TerViva - orchard - 1

We believe pongamia can help diversify agriculture production on Maui while also potentially addressing our community’s need for renewable fuels. Our former sugar lands provide a great opportunity to grow more energy crops locally as they are ideally suited for large scale cultivation and mechanical harvesting.” – A&B President & CEO, Chris Benjamin

TerViva was the first ag company to join Elemental Excelerator’s portfolio in 2014. As part of their demonstration project, they are growing more than 200 acres of pongamia trees on Oahu and Maui. The oil extracted from pongamia seeds is well suited for industrial applications such as biopesticides, lubricants, chemicals, and fuels – and the residual seed cake shows promise as a feed supplement for beef cattle. Compared to soy, pongamia requires only 25 percent of the chemical and water inputs. One acre of pongamia produces 10 times more oil and 3 times more protein rich seed cake than one acre of soybeans.

EEx TerViva 3

This project is not only transformational for TerViva (it’s their first orchard in the region), but it’s also transformational for Hawaii.

  • Local farmers and agribusinesses are a critical source of economic stability for rural economies, through jobs and direct and indirect spending. TerViva is steadily growing its Hawaii-based team, and the company supports two local nurseries and a handful of contractors.
  • Pongamia is able to grow on marginal agricultural land that is not suitable for other crops. This is ideal for a place like Hawaii where the soil, which once provided resources for thousands of acres of sugarcane and pineapple, has been largely stripped of key nutrients.
  • Biofuel and biomass play a role in Hawaii’s transformation to clean energy, providing firm, dispatchable power. Hawaiian Electric’s December 2016 Power Supply Improvement Plan outlines how the utility plans to utilize biofuels in power plants to replace oil as a fuel source.

There is a growing trend in the number of new agtech companies mature enough for a demonstration project, as evidenced in Elemental Excelerator’s pipeline of applicants:

  • Since 2014, EEx had added four other agriculture startups to the portfolio of 53 startups. These companies are working to increase local beef production, increase crop yields, and help small farmers use data to reduce water usage.
  • Over the last few years, EEx has also seen a dramatic increase in applications from ag startups. This year, 10 percent of the companies who took the first step to apply were agriculture-related. That’s twice as many as last year!

After Monsanto acquired the Climate Corporation in 2013, ag tech gained significant attention. In 2014 alone, investments in ag tech grew 170%. Most innovation was focused in the areas of biotechnology and seed genetics. Today, subsectors include bioenergy, sustainable protein, decision support tech, soil & crop tech, advanced imaging & data analytics, and many others. Investment and innovation are no longer limited to players in the agriculture sector. Moreover, as concern grows over droughts, weather fluctuations, the cost of farm labor, and competition with international markets, key players such as farmers, agro-businesses, and landowners are searching for ways to grow smarter.

 

Elemental Excelerator

Elemental Excelerator helps startups change the world, one community at a time. Each year, they find 12-15 companies that best fit their mission and fund each company up to $1 million to improve systems that impact peoples lives: energy, water, agriculture, and transportation. To date, Elemental Excelerator (EEx) has awarded over $20 million to more than 50 companies. What makes EEx unique? They co-fund, co-design, and co-develop projects and strategies that improve infrastructure and sustainably enhance communities. The program is funded by a diverse coalition of utility partners, corporate partners, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Department of Energy, state government, and philanthropic organizations, and is structured as a non-profit created in collaboration with Emerson Collective.

 

Related articles:

2015 State Ag Land Use Baseline Data, Hawaii Department of Agriculture

AgTech Is The New Queen Of Green, TechCrunch

Cultivating Ag Tech: 5 Trends Shaping The Future of Agriculture, CB Insights

Hawaii’s Last Sugar Plantation Finishes Its Final Harvest, NBC

Some Thoughts on Farmland Investing on the Downside of a Commodity Cycle

By Tom Schenk, TerViva’s Director of Business Development

A good case can be made that over the last 10 years, most of the “easy” money has been made in farmland investing. Corn, soybeans, wheat, and many other commodities more than doubled in price over their prior decades, and then maintained those levels – until this past year. Surges in worldwide demand and weather-related shortages primarily fueled this explosive rise in prices.

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Farm income rose sharply as interest rates plummeted and suddenly a once-sleepy asset class called farmland (and agriculture in general) became the darling of hot investor money. As investors swarmed to this asset class, farmland prices were bid up even faster than lease rates were rising.

Farmland that once fetched an 8% cap rate declined to 3% and in some cases even lower. Total annualized returns (lease income + land appreciation) ballooned to 15% and many expected those returns to stay close to those levels far into the future – until this year. Additionally, tillable acres worldwide grew sharply as technology improved farming methods and varietal yields.

So in 2014, faced with a worldwide surplus of grains, we are reminded once again of the fundamental laws of supply and demand.

Farmland values are related to lease rates. Lease rates are related to farm incomes. Farm incomes are related to crop prices, input costs, and tax rates. And none of the latter has been kind to profitability.   Growth in profitability drives appreciation expectations for this asset class.image009

As a result – and in the near term – investors are dreaming if they are expecting traditional row crop farmland returns beyond their current lease rate. Row crop farmland has entered an “adjustment” period where crop supply/demand ratios slowly re-align, where land prices re-align with rental rates, and where rental rates re-align with farm income. This is nothing new in agriculture world, but certainly may be for investors new to this asset class.

But rather than concluding on a gloomy note, I’d like to leave readers with two thoughts.

  1. Finding/creating alpha from this asset class will take some thinking outside of the box. In other words, instead of passively owning traditional farmland and riding the commodity cycles up and down, explore ways to proactively drive your own returns.

Advances in precision farming have the ability to make the land, inputs, machinery and the farmer more productive. However, converting to precision farming is expensive and especially at current crop prices, can take many years to just break even.

Agriculture will always need supporting businesses, handling, and processing infrastructure assets. Opportunities should be explored here, as well.

And finally, another approach for traditional farmland investment portfolios may be to add an “alternative” crop that can be grown on under-productive or low-value land. Though it is a shameless plug, the oilseed tree crop called pongamia is one such crop that, to date, is showing extraordinary promise to achieve just such a goal on abandoned citrus land in Florida as well as abandoned pineapple and sugar land in Hawaii.

  1. The final thought here is a macro observation about investing in general in today’s crazy world. I attended one of the top business schools, and worked in Wall Street firms for 36 years specializing in commodities and money management and I am completely dumbfounded at where we find ourselves today. I was taught that a healthy economy saves and thus creates capital to invest in the production of goods and services and good things result for the society as a whole.

The “Quantitative Easing” experiment that the central banks have embarked on has little precedent and even fewer image007beneficial results for employment or the economy as a whole. Years of artificially suppressed interest rates have resulted in mis-allocating capital and mis-pricing risk across all asset classes. Japan has probably the longest experience in following this politically expedient money-printing experiment and is a good place to look to for a preview of what we can expect in Western economies. There is a mind-blowing quantity of: debt, leveraged debt, trillions of derivatives and swaps written on this debt. Let’s be clear: nothing tangible is created other than esoteric derivative paper instruments or making the spread off borrowing from the Fed and investing in Treasuries!
Just like Will Rogers quipped years ago, that he is more interested in the return of his money than the return on his money, so too should investors be today. Farmland is truly a real asset – and it cash flows. (Not even gold can make that claim.) People will always have to eat. Farmland is always taking the energy from the sun and the rich earth and creating food. Even at today’s low returns, there are few better places to store one’s wealth until this economy returns back to some fundamental economic reality. If you own farmland, sleep well.

Looking for Value in Farmland Investing

By Tom Schenk, Director of Business Development for TerViva

Back in 2006, when people were trading the stock and the real estate markets like rock stars, few people cared about a quietly obscure asset class called farmland.  However, the economic collapse that began in 2008 changed all of that. At the same time, grain prices soared to a new plateau at 2x the prices seen in the 80’s and 90’s due to increased demand from middle class consumers in emerging markets and ethanol production, as well as supply shortages created by crop failures from violent extremes in weather patterns globally. On the demand side, the industrialization of emerging market countries has brought millions of people into the middle class in those countries who demanded – and could afford – better diets of meats, vegetables, and grains.

At the beginning of the farmland investment boom in the US, every $1 of farmland value only carried about 5¢ of debt.  Ownership was in strong hands. It was this obscure statistic relating to the low levels of farmland debt that was one of the greatest factors that contributed to the fact that this asset class being a wonderful placeholder for wealth during the financial hurricane that slashed stock and residential and commercial real estate in half in a period of months.  Asset classes that were highly-leveraged were the same ones that deflated the hardest.  When collateral for loans decline in value, lenders demand more collateral.  If that other collateral is falling, it creates fire sales in a rush for liquidity and thus a vicious feedback loop ensues.

Today, debt-to-asset ratios in some of the major farming states are back to 30% and higher.  These are levels not seen since 1979 which, along with sharply rising interest rates and falling commodity prices, led to the great farm crisis of the 1980’s.  Today, alarms are being sounded that we are in a similar setup and an imminent crash could be ahead.

However, few things in the financial world are that linear in reasoning.  There are many moving parts involved in calculating the future stability of this asset class if we enter a period of rough financial weather.  For example, while debt levels in dollar terms may have increased 2x, land values (on paper) have gone up 3x to 4x times in many instances.  Another major variable in this calculus is that production costs for farmers have come very close to doubling in this period also.  Additionally, farmland has historically had a very high inverse correlation to the 10-year US Treasury rate.  The enormous impact on farmland values from the Federal Reserve’s financial engineering of interest rates cannot be overstated.  Where investors could find 7% – 9% cap rates back in 2006, today those rates have dropped to a range of 2% – 4¾% depending on the quality, yields, and location in the US.

Nevertheless, traditional farmland investing is considerably more vulnerable to adverse shocks than it was in 2006.  Creighton University’s Farmland-Price Index is a monthly survey of 200 rural communities in major grain growing states.  The most recent survey show that the rate of farmland price appreciation is has been decelerating since late 2012.  Clearly land prices are flattening out.  Unfortunately, commodity prices and land values can drop by the speed of light compared to any declines in production costs , and this can put a farm’s balance sheet in a bind almost overnight.  A strong case can be made that interest rates may have hit a long-term (30+ years) cyclical low.  If rates begin to rise, there is little question that farmland prices can come under immediate pressure.  There has always been a historically strong inverse correlation between 10-year Treasuries and farmland prices.

US farmland prices were on the steady rise last year (above), but according to the recent Fed Reserve studies in KC and St. Louis, prices are plateauing (http://bit.ly/1b5Wzxe)

US farmland prices were on the steady rise last year (above), but according to the recent Fed Reserve studies in KC and St. Louis, prices are plateauing (http://bit.ly/1b5Wzxe)

The purpose of this article is not to sound alarms about the imminent demise of farmland asset values. In this past decade, we have seen “bluechip” stocks and “AAA-rated” bonds  go to zero, as well as commercial real estate like shopping centerss can become vacant or obsolete.  But what was unique about farmland is that it has an imbedded put option; if you lose a crop, you still have the land and you can try again.  In this crazy world of abstract derivatives with notional values priced at hundreds of trillions of dollars worldwide, there will always be a demand for an real asset like farmland; it cash flows and the demand for its output is relatively inelastic.  People have to eat.

However, it should give investors pause before they pay $12,000 for that next Illinois acre.

Large scale/institutional farmland investors have always diversified geographically and with different crops, but in cyclical commodity downturns, the income streams of these “diverse” yet traditional agricultural properties will have as much non-correlation as a squadron of Blue Angels at a summer air show.  In other words, that cotton property in Mississippi will go in the same direction as corn land in Iowa or the potato farm in Idaho.

So what’s a farmland investor to do in what appears to be a relatively deflationary economic climate?? One idea is to borrow a page out of what traditional money portfolio managers have done for decades which is to apply the principals of Modern Portfolio Management – namely, diversify into property types with diverse return profiles in order to reduce overall portfolio risk.  Over the years, I have seen small cap and micro cap managers rescue overall portfolio returns by exploiting those overlook and under-researched companies where fundamental analysis ran circles around index managers by finding those opportunities that returned comparatively out-sized returns from some overlooked niche. In the 80’s, Microsoft was one such company.  The underlying attraction in small cap stock investing is that few, if any, analysts are researching these companies.

TerViva pongamia trees thriving in Texas

TerViva pongamia trees thriving in Texas

To that end, there is a quiet little company out of Oakland, CA called TerViva that has been establishing plantations of a hardy tree crop called pongamia. Pongamia trees are native to Australia and India.  They produce a nut crop that is virtually a first cousin of soybeans – but grows on a footprint where soybeans generally cannot.  An annual harvest of the nuts can produce over 400 gallons of oil and a couple of tons of residual “seedcake” that can be used as a high-protein animal feed or as a high-nitrogen fertilizer.  In a given year, a producer has the ability to direct that oil to biodiesel, bio-jet-fuel, bio-chemical (it is high in oleic acid and other valuable long-chain carbon compounds), or even biopesticides markets, depending on what is determined to be the highest best use downstream markets. Pretty cool.  The oil has been tested by Dynamic Fuels, REG, and Shell as a great feedstock worth about $3.50/gal.  I recently spoke to an organic grower who has successfully used pongamia oil as an adjuvant in his pesticide sprays for the last 7 years.  His supply comes from India.  He proudly informed me that he had recently got the price of his oil “down” to $17/gallon!

However, the most compelling aspect of this tree crop is that these trees can thrive in marginal soils such as south Texas or the challenging sandy fallow soils southern Florida where citrus trees used to grow before HLB disease marched through the state.  Instead of passively collecting x in revenue like typical farmland investors, you can proactively generate 5x-10x on these lower grade properties. And as a result, you will obviously get a sharp appreciation in the underlying land value in addition to the improved income stream that is arguably on par with the richest Iowa or Illinois farms.

Is this too far-fetched of an idea?  Not for three major citrus growers in Florida (plus a fourth grower planting this month) who conducted extensive research on the tree and this concept before planting on their own properties.  So far, they are more than pleased with what they are observing. The trees are growing almost twice as fast as citrus and require a fraction of the inputs.  Moreover, for investors who want to grow this tree crop, these citrus companies will act as the operators for planting, maintenance and harvesting.

Sometimes is you cannot find any gems in the rough, you just have to make your own.

Tom is TerViva’s Director of US Business Development, and works every day with agriculture growers to explore opportunities with new crops.

The 99%

Look around you right now and you will see plant based products: the coffee in your mug, the cotton in your shirt, and the mustard stain on your pant leg. Plants are out there silently manufacturing a myriad of compounds and polymers that weave their way into every aspect of our lives.

The shear variety of food, medicine, personal care items, and industrial products made possible by harnessing and commercializing plants is mind boggling. Even more amazing is that this plethora of plant products is largely derived from only 250 domesticated plant species. To put that number in perspective, that is only 0.06% of the possible 390,000 estimated species of land plants that grow on earth. What about the other 99.94%? Is there an untapped reservoir of agronomic possibility lurking out there in the forest? Think what we could do by effectively harnessing just another 0.06% of it. 

The fact that such a small percentage of the earth’s plant species have been domesticated tells me two things 1) domesticating new plant species has been difficult for most of human history 2) somewhere in that 99.94 % there must be at least a few leafy gems waiting to be mined by someone with the right equipment.

wheatBut, why bother with new species anyway? In the past, people have rarely found it necessary or economically beneficial to domesticate a totally new species, even when business as usual wasn’t working. Settlers moving to the American Midwest found that their European varieties of wheat didn’t grow too well in the new environment. Did they drop everything and domesticate local prickly pears? No, they developed new varieties of European wheat. I’ll take a wild guess and say that a big factor in that decision was that the demand for wheat was probably higher than for prickly pear.

So, why is today any different? What is the incentive to domesticate new crops, and will there be a market?

Since the agricultural expansion of the Midwest, some things have changed, and other things have stayed pretty much the same. Americans still ask themselves “How can I make the best use of my land?” and “Who am I going to sell my crop to?” The main difference is that the answers aren’t so simple anymore.  Markets for agricultural products are larger and more complicated. To name just a few new demanding customers with specific needs: biodiesel refineries want cheap triglycerides, chemical manufacturers want feedstocks for specialty chemicals, the health foods industry wants better nutrition grown with lower environmental impact, and manufacturers of personal care items want oleochemicals in high volumes. Farmers want all this to happen using less inputs, and environmentalists want it to happen on less land with less environmental impact. It’s a big ask from our 250 domesticated plants, especially if it’s going to happen in a sustainable and profitable way for the farmer.factory

I believe that many of these new demands will require new crops to satisfy them.  It is likely that some solutions will come from tweaking plants that we are already familiar with, but perhaps we will also need to look toward the 99.94%. Just as advancements in mining equipment has allowed miners to reach untapped ore, advances in agriculture and genetics will allow scientists and growers to explore the potential of a broader range of species for cultivation. For the past few years Terviva has been matching suitable growers with a new tree crop, pongamia, to help them add value to land where conventional crops, such as citrus, have failed. In just three years, pongamia went from being unheard of to relatively well known in a few key geographies.

Creating channels for the acceptance and utilization of new crops is not an easy task, but progress is being made. Once the domestication channels are in place, new crops will likely be easier to bring online. The rewards will include the preservation of an entrepreneurial agrarian lifestyle that America has come to know and love, as well as the production of higher value agricultural products using fewer inputs.

Where Can Investors Hide Today?

Author:  Tom Schenk

If the political and financial landscape seems to be getting a little crazier to you, you are not alone.  What happened in Cyprus a few weeks ago set a new bar for what the governments and central banks can – and will – do.  It also demonstrates how powerless the citizens can be.

ScrewedToday’s investors are extremely challenged to find some “place holder” for the wealth they have spent their life accumulating.  After Cyprus, I think we can scratch “cash in the bank” off of that list. Government bonds? Who wants to buy a 30-year Treasury at a 2.95% yield?  Any guess what would happen to the principal if rates rose?  Stocks are not cheap.  And adjusted for inflation, they really haven’t gone anywhere in the last decade plus companies can always issue more shares.  Buying at the highs may not end well. And after 2009, when we saw stocks drop by half or more, how do you quantify your risk-adjusted returns in this asset class?  And let’s not forget about the hundreds of trillions of esoteric derivatives that are collateralized by this stock and bond markets where volumes are dominated by elaborate algorithms and high frequency trading systems.

Gold and silver? Those are a classic store of wealth (even though they do not cash flow), but we have also seen the US government (in the 1930’s) make it illegal to own.  Could they confiscate it today?  They don’t have to; all they have to do is declare, say, a 50% tax on any sale. Would they do that?  I have no idea. But until last week, I sure didn’t think they would talk about taxing our retirement savings, either.

Hardly a day goes by when I’m reading about some guru advising investors to move their assets abroad.  Really?  Would you really feel better with storing your wealth thousands of miles away in Europe or some developing economy country? There were no classes in business school that taught us how to cope with today’s investment climate.

That green paint could be worth more than we all think.

That green paint could be worth more than we all think.

By process of elimination, I believe the last thing a government would do is jeopardize its domestic food supply.  For that reason, I believe that good US farmland may be one of the last, best places for investors to preserve their wealth.  It’s not a place for a get rich quick home run, but it may be perhaps the best oasis in a landscape increasingly filled with risk that is almost impossible to define anymore by conventional analysis.

In the last 10 years we have observed how fast money can move in a panic.  None of the problems that caused that panic have been solved; they have only gotten bigger.  Now is a better time to trust your own gut feeling, or common sense, or what else you want to call it.  Don’t split hairs over a 4.5% cap rate or a 4.38 % or whatever.  If farmland feels like a good place to invest, get out and look at the property, meet the farmer, look over the operation and make your decision and get a good night’s sleep.  Time may be shorter than you think.

Tom Schenk is the Director of Business Development for TerViva, working with landowners to develop new strategies for new agriculture crops.  Tom has worked for over 20 years in trading agriculture commodities and acquiring farmland for investment purposes.

What is marginal land? Goodbye topsoil, my old friend…

Author: Matt Willis

The food versus fuel debate in the biofuels development world has prompted some policy makers to propose that agrofuel crops should only be planted on land that is considered marginal or degraded, but what exactly does this mean?

Marginal land is defined as arid and generally inhospitable land that usually has little or no potential for profit, and often has poor soil or other undesirable characteristics. This land is often located at the edge of deserts or other desolate or degraded areas.  However, much of the worlds prime agriculture land would be classified as marginal were it not for the advent of cheap, nitrogen based fertilisers and large scale irrigation, to keep it productive.

In fact more and more land is becoming degraded as intensive farming and bad land use practice leaves prime agriculture land vulnerable to severe topsoil erosion. Around the world, including the USA and the UK, soil is being swept and washed away 10 to 40 times faster than it is being replenished, destroying cropland the size of Indiana every year, reports a Cornell University study. The vast majority, 99.7 percent, of human food comes from cropland, which is shrinking by more than 10 million hectares (almost 37,000 square miles) a year due to soil erosion, while more people than ever, more than 3.7 billion, are malnourished. More pessimistic reports state that there may be as little as 70 years left before all the worlds topsoil is eroded.

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Photograph by Lynn Betts, NRCS

Heavy rains in northwest Iowa washed away soil, leaving this scarred tableau. This type of erosion, termed sheet-and-rill erosion, occurs when there is insufficient vegetation to hold soil in place. As rain falls, it forms sheets of surface water that transport soil away. As more water accumulates, it forms runoff channels called rills, which further displace soil.

Excessive use of nitrogen based fertilisers also has a price.  Around 60% of nitrate in English waters originate from agricultural land. Elevated levels of these nutrients are of concern because they can cause eutrophication, which harms the water environment. Also, excess nitrate has to be removed before water can be supplied to consumers, raising the cost of supplying fresh water.

Agriculture accounts for 70% of our fresh water use, we pour most of our water straight onto the ground. If soil is not fit for purpose, that water will be wasted, because it washes right through degraded soil and past the root system.

So, although the definition of marginal land may seem obvious, what actually is considered marginal land can change within a relatively short period of time.

Are lands that require huge amounts of irrigation and fertilisers to remain productive, under the current intensive agriculture model, only not marginal due to these inputs and if these inputs become too expensive to maintain the productivity of the land, does it then become marginal?  Citrus greening disease is currently turning once productive, non marginal land, into unproductive acreage that, given time, may lay fallow and be susceptible to soil erosion creating huge swathes of marginal land in States such as Florida.  Options exist to utilise this land now to grow oil seed crops before this acreage becomes truly marginal. Would policy makers prefer the land to become unproductive first before seeing suitable crops such as Pongamia cultivated in these areas?

In the developing world the identification of marginal land is also not so easy.  If you believe what you read, then in continents such as Africa and Latin America, 1000’s upon 1000’s of acres lie unused and waiting to be developed however, it is necessary to draw the distinction between unused, be it commercially or otherwise, and marginal.  Unused acreage is often, in fact, being used by small communities. One example of how estimates for “abandoned cropland” useable for bioenergy are derived is a 2008 study by Christopher Field et al, who suggests that 386 million hectares of such land exist. Any land believed to have been used as cropland at any time since 1700, and which satellite images don’t show as being “cropland” today is classed as “abandoned” unless it is currently forested or part of urban settlements. There has been no critical review to assess whether such satellite-based mapping ignores small-scale mixed farming by communities, but it is clear that other community uses, including the use of land for pasture, are ignored when “abandoned cropland” is defined.

Policy makers need to take into account a far larger range of issues when considering land use for biofuels.  Intelligent use of crops that can actually thrive on truly marginal land are required to develop sustainable agriculture programs that can potentially create a new source of income for struggling farmers, such as in Florida and also help to develop new markets for burgeoning economies in Africa and Latin America.  However, a “one size fits all” approach to these policies simply will not work.

TerViva works responsibly with farmers and landowners to create crops that truly thrive and rehabilitate degraded land, transforming barren landscapes into healthy, profitable environments.Image

Matt Willis is TerViva’s Director of International Markets.

International Land Grab

On February 5, the New York Times published an op-ed called, “The Global Farmland Rush” (http://nyti.ms/XQqFfG), which discusses the intense land grab in emerging economies.  An example cited in the article:  a Saudi-led group’s recent attempt to acquired 4,600 square miles of land in Indonesia.

The rationale for this land grab?  Well, as Mark Twain said:  “Buy land — they’re not making it anymore”.  With increasing pressure on our global agriculture system to feed the world’s growing population, there’s a rush to find arable land — whether for production today or as an investment for the future.  On that note, we’ve been amazed by the sophistication with which certain investment groups are analyzing this space.  As an example, look no further than the treatise on African agriculture put forth by Renaissance Capital  (http://bit.ly/YWOQ10).

Perhaps because of my background in energy, there’s something familiar about this story.  A few decades ago, it was popular for established US and European oil companies to go into Asia, the Middle East and Africa to secure land for drilling.  Over time, those countries’ governments slowly clawed back on those deals, effectively knocking down the project returns.

We’ve already seen governments do this with land (think Zimbabwe).  As the value of arable land goes up in the coming decades, we believe there will be populist pressure to “re-negotiate” these current land deals.  Of course, I’m sure that investors have “priced” this possibility into their land purchase calculations, and they’ve still concluded that it’s worth it.

And that, to me, says a lot about how valuable land is becoming.