June 13, 2014 4:08 pm

Global land prices and the future of farming

Drone surveillance? Boutique food production? Where is the smart money in agricultural land being sown?
Rice terraces of Bangaan at Banaue, Philippines©AWL Images

Rice terraces of Bangaan at Banaue, Philippines (AWL Images)

By the end of this century, there will be more than 10bn people to feed. Surely, a finite planet has only so much land for food production, and the laws of supply and demand dictate that the value of fertile fields will rise. Yet political instability in Africa and Asia, extreme weather and rising global fuel costs create uncertainty that is anathema for investors. So where is the smart money in agricultural land being sown?

Christophe Pelletier, author of Future Harvests: The Next Agricultural Revolution (2010), says that “strategically, the Chinese have been very clever. They want food security for a large population, so about 20 years ago they started to buy not just land in Africa but encouraged [Chinese nationals to set up] small businesses there [to ensure] economic stability, and they didn’t interfere with local politics. The last thing they want is a revolution and their farms being burnt down. So their interest is in a long-term ‘win-win’ situation for the land and the people living on it”.

A growing asset

A growing asset

Keeping people on the land is a tough act, for there are few bucks in the boondocks. Two-thirds of the world’s hungry people are small farmers, which means agricultural settlements are often abandoned for the promise of urban amenities and employment. More than half the world’s population now lives in cities and by 2049 that figure is projected to be about 65 per cent, which was the percentage of country dwellers in 1961.

This migration is having a big effect on the future of traditionally farmed land – the curated landscapes that contribute to our cultural identity. The 600-year-old Cordilleras landscape in the Philippines consists of vast cascades of wet terraces for growing rice – an evening-lit paradise to adorn tourism posters. However, the terraces are starting to fall down their hillsides for want of maintenance. In Uganda the reed farmers have upped sticks, and nobody is left to grow the crops needed to build and maintain the thatched Wamala kings’ tombs, each a cone of bounded-reed ring beams propped on columns and like nothing else on earth.

Do we depend on communities to stay on farmed land for food security? In the 50 years since 1961 the world’s agricultural area rose from 4.47bn acres to more than 4.9bn, but that figure has plateaued for 20 years. A more pressing issue is that only about 320m acres of it – one-15th of the total – is currently irrigated. From all that land, we already produce enough food to feed 9bn people, but an estimated 40 per cent of it is lost in the production chain: in the field, roadsides, in factories and in bins. Pelletier puts the value of this waste at $900bn. Clearly, there is room for efficiency. And that has less to do with land purchasing and more with investments in farming like sustainable irrigation systems and the adoption of military-led technology in drone surveillance and remote soil monitoring. Energy-intensive nitrate fertilisers can require two calories of embedded energy to grow every one calorie of food. And up to 40 per cent of those nitrates are washed out of the soil. The clever money is on identifying exactly where the fertiliser is needed.

Change in price

Many frown upon the modern dependence on artificial soil enrichment. Nitrogen gained through clover, crop rotation and “organic” fertilisers creates an ethical premium. This locally-rooted farming might seem a strong investment with a powerful message to consumers, regardless of its relative nutritional value. Yet it is not so clear-cut. “The last thing people need is to be preached at, or talked down to,” says Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo in Napa, California.

Sando founded his bean empire just over a decade ago when he tired of a career dependent on satisfying employers. “I was 40 and felt I needed to grow for pleasure. Also, to find a crop that spoke broadly about the American people. So I bought two-and-a-half acres in Napa for $500,000, and learned to produce beans.” Pulses are among the world’s cheapest foods, and Sando thought the US market was “back-assward” in attempting to rival low-cost competitors through huge subsidies, with the reward of anaemic flavour. It was an awkward business case but he never had to borrow money for Rancho Gordo to pioneer the bean revival in this corner of Old Mexico. Every spring, he gives beans to three farmers with water rights in Central Valley, and buys everything back at harvest.

You would think that selling them would be easy. Many heirloom beans sound like pantomime characters: Good Mother Stallard jostles with Vaquero, and Jack might reasonably have swapped the family cow for their fairytale stripes, spots and pastel shades. Yet at local farmers’ markets, sales were slow at $6 a pound. “Young people couldn’t believe you can get a complete protein that cheap – much less than meat. But elderly people recalled eating lacklustre beans as a fallback in the Great Depression,” says Sando. The breakthrough came when French Laundry chef Thomas Keller stopped by and heralded Rancho Gordo as saviours of the savoury: without Sando’s vision, many delicious bean varieties would have remained unknown and possibly become extinct.

Perhaps counter-intuition is the new norm in boutique food production. We are what we eat, if you swallow that line, and cultures are in some measure defined by their cuisine. So the smart money is in “terroirism” – the food that offers a sense of belonging and the opportunity to discover a story.

The environmental ethics implicitly follow. Poet and farmer Wendell Berry says that “farmers produce valuable goods, of course; but they also conserve soil, they conserve water, they conserve wildlife, they conserve open space, they conserve scenery”. And many people want to witness that conservation in action.

Polyface Farm in Virginia, US, has become a destination of back-to-basics, anti-mass farming righteousness. Yet it is quite a dull afternoon out – some gambolling piglets are the highlight. And that is the point: they are gambolling and not bound by iron clamps. Thus reassured, you can buy slices of their relatives in the farm shop.

Young people couldn’t believe you can get a complete protein that cheap

Yet old values must meet the future of changing climate. Many farmers are responding to change with informed choices. Thirty years ago, the Champagne region had the average temperature southern England now experiences, and vineyards like Shawsgate in Suffolk and Camel Valley in Cornwall are today producing excellent wines.

Christophe Pelletier says in India, barren, dry ex-mining land is being planted with hardy pongamia trees in order to harvest their oil. Cattle owners are urged to give their cows the rich feed cake taken from the husks after pressing and the cows’ manure then replenishes the soil.

After recalling the crushing experience of eating a hydroponically-grown Dutch tomato inexplicably imported into California, Steve Sando chews over whether he is a cheerleader for an increasingly localised food production. “Not really. I’m not one to dictate, but personally I see it this way: grow vegetables locally, where they’re freshest; milk and livestock is a regional thing, wherever grazing, processing and distribution are best; and grain should grow wherever in the world plains can support it,” he says.

Sando sounds like a happy man. Masanobu Fukuoka, the Japanese farmer and philosopher, held that “the ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings”. And stepping up to the plate with a smart investment in agriculture sometimes reaps the most satisfying of rewards.

Main image: AWL

Jonathan Foyle is chief executive of World Monuments Fund Britain and Kate Allen is the FT’s property correspondent

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Letter in response to this article:

Farming techniques on a distant planet / From Mr Steve Bernard

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