Response to Steve Bohr’s Article Public Land Sales ‘Gutting Agriculture’

Aug 20, 2022 | Family Farms, How To Sell Farmland, Iowa Farm Real Estate, Land Auctions

Jason Smith

Jason Smith

Auctioneer, Land Broker, Founder

Jason is an Auctioneer and Land Broker in Iowa and the surrounding states.  The DreamDirt team of auctioneers, land brokers, and realtors specialize in farmland sales primarily serving the heirs to family farms all across Iowa and some surrounding states.  Today's report details Iowa's current land market for land sold at auctions.

Email: Jason@dreamdirt.com | Phone: (515) 537-6633

Introduction Read This First

For years in my blogs, my farmland sales ebooks, and interviews I have talked about how easy it is to be taken advantage of when selling farmland.  I’ve talked about the emotional ploys, misinformation, fabricated stories, social pressure, and relational pressure I’ve witnessed, too.  Some considered it conjecture simply because you can’t just a person’s intentions.  Others understood.  Never at any time did I have solid evidence to rely on because nobody had ever as far as I know said it out loud publicly.  Then I woke up Saturday morning to a text message saying “you have to read this article” and a text photo of a newspaper article from the Iowa Farmer Today.  Later another would come, and then another.  Over the course of three days, it would be texted to me 8 different times by different people that all said the same thing “you have to read this”. The article is available online and while I hate to expose you to the information, it’s important you see it.  I think it would be helpful if you read it before reading my comments.  Link: Public land sales ‘gutting agriculture’ 

My Response to this opinion piece on public land sales

It’s Saturday morning and while I wasn’t going to work much today, I guess I am going to do some writing. Upon waking up this morning, I read an article that blamed heirs of family farms who sell through auctions for agriculture’s eventual demise. The article titled Public Land Sales ‘Gutting Agriculture’ went as far as to paint a picture for me of heirs as greedy, money-hungry, spoiled adults.  The author recognized he’d take some heat from “his auctioneer friends” and while I am not friends with him, he caught my attention, and while I have no ill will, it can’t go unchallenged, somebody has to stand up and say it.  The author’s claims lead me to believe he feels family heirs have done absolutely nothing for their good fortune of inheritance by comparing them to people that buy Powerball lottery tickets. Following this, it attempted to convince heirs that receiving money from the farm sale would be bad luck comparable to winning lottery jackpots and could ruin their lives! In all of my years as a farmland auctioneer, I have never heard such a ridiculous and obvious manipulation of reality and emotions. Trying to publicly shame heirs of family farms for their inheritance is simply ridiculous and I’m going to stand up and set the record straight. I’ve written about these tactics so many times, but this is the first time somebody has openly documented them. It shows just how dangerous private dealing can be and why auctions are the absolute best choice to market tillable farmland.

The Truth About Farmland Prices

First, one simple truth. Farmland prices are driven by the profitability of farms. I mean, it’s no mystery that when commodity prices go up, land prices do, as well. The positive correlation isn’t a coincidence. Another truth is that the only people that can afford to buy farmland are those with businesses that generate large profits, and the money has to go somewhere. Farmland is an easy place to park a lot of money fast, and it requires very little management. Farmers, investors, and the government are the most typical buyers of farmland. The final truth: Not all farmers are the same. Not all farms are big giant land hogs. Most are very proud when they are able to add a farm to their family ownership. That’s always been the truth.

Maximizing the Value of Your Farm

I have to tell you a few thoughts first. We know all farmers want to buy land as cheap as possible and I believe that’s their obligation. It would be irresponsible if they lacked that desire. They should be fighting for their family, they should be pushing to grow if they want any longevity. They are obligated to do the best they can for themselves. I believe farmers are honest people that prefer to do honest deals, but they’ll take every advantage they can get (as they should). As a seller, you have choices and obligations yourself. If you are an executor, you do have legal obligations and possibly obligations to the beneficiaries, as well. If you are a Trustee you have an obligation to operate in a “business-like fashion”. You have personal feelings, too. You may love the idea of discounting the price for somebody like a tenant. You might like the idea of selling to a young farmer. You might also like the idea of maximizing the value of your farm using an auction and there is NOTHING wrong with that.

Economics of Farming

The issues are plentiful and in my true fashion, I’m confident this is going to be a long blog post. Let’s start from the beginning by examining some of the questions this opinion piece brings up. When does a farmer sell his crop? When he can get the most money for it. I have never heard anybody say “I sure hope crop prices fall so I can sell my corn.” When a farmer brings a tractor to the local auction, does he say “I’d like this to go to somebody cheap”? I’ve never heard that! When you see cattlemen show up at the livestock auction with cattle, what is their hope? They don’t show up saying “why don’t you sort two of these off and send them to the food pantry for people that don’t have any food”. Instead, they are there to get the most money they can for their cattle, and rightfully so! The last thing I want to do is paint a picture of people in agriculture that are NOT generous because THEY ARE. Most of them do so much good in our world for so many people. I think they are likely to be the best people left on earth. They do the noblest work and bring about good. I don’t want to paint a picture that all farmers are plush with cash and don’t wrestle with the economics of farming, because they do. But it’s not my job or yours to make life “easy” for them because farm economics has never been easy for any generation. They never will be easy, but you can’t blame the auctioneer or the seller of the land.

85% of Farmland Buyers in Iowa are Farmers

While I cannot speak for the author, it seemed his opinion was that only people who “work and care for the land” should be allowed to own land and it is my assumption that he is one of these people. It is apparent that he thinks that anybody that is a non-farmer investor should be blocked from owning land. But wait, in the state of Iowa, year after year, the land purchases are 85% by farmers and only around 11% by investors while the other 4% goes to various organizations, parks, public land, and reserves. All of these numbers include the land around large cities, bought for the development of new homes. This means that more than 85% of the time, land that is intended to be farmed is sold to farmers. As a matter of fact, investors don’t even like buying farms at auctions and typically do it only as a last resort. Often, this is because they found a farm that either fits a location, a 1031 timeline is running out and the auction is the only way or prior to the auction a farmer has made them a rental offer and they are there to cooperate with a farmer that wants to farm the property. Most investors are just like farmers, they prefer to buy privately for only one reason, the price.

In the Author’s example, while painting a picture of greedy family farm heirs, he used an absolutely absurd case. Which I’m sure he did not realize but proved my point that the greed may be coming from him. In his article, he said,

“Jack Whitaker, the winner of the $315 million Powerball, regretted winning his jackpot. ‘It certainly has been a curse to me,’ he later said in an interview. ‘If you have something, there is always someone that wants it.’ This falls into the ‘love of money is the root of all evil’ category as we have all heard stories of winning the lottery ruining the lives of the winners.”

Steve Bohr

Author

One particular line stands out to me and tells the truth. “If you have something, there is always someone that wants it”, and when you own land, there is always someone that wants it. How many times have I written about this in the past?! That’s what his article is about. It’s not about you being greedy, selfish, or lucky. It’s about you having something that somebody else wants to use for their own benefit. The entire piece makes it almost too obvious in a way that’s shocking.

Inheriting Farmland

“The love of money is the root of all evil”, come on? I know he doesn’t speak for all of the agricultural community, but money is everybody’s goal. According to him, there should be no auctions, but instead private deals in which the auctioneer is cut out, heirs take less money than is available, and the eventual buyer enriches themselves so their family can own an asset that generates profit for them instead of you. If “money is the root of all evil”, why is he advocating for increased profit for those “working and farming the land”? Similarly, why is he in favor of a decreased benefit to the heirs of the land by skipping an auction? You know, it has never been lost on me that you can sum up nearly every advertisement to farmers by seed and chemical companies with 4 words: “More yield, more money!” Pick up a farm journal sometime and tell me I’m wrong. In the pursuit of agriculture, the goal of every farm is “more money”. If it’s not, why are they always pushing research to grow more crops? Why use fertilizer if you don’t care about money?

Why are Land Prices High?

Who bids on the auctions? If farmers are bidding and winning more than 85% of the time, why do the high bidding prices hold the potential to destroy agriculture? Are they making bad financial decisions bidding this high? If so, why is it the fault of the auction or seller? At one point, it got too high because someone placed a bid above the “too high” point. It wasn’t the auctioneer or seller. An auction has literally every term of the sale set with the exception of one thing, the PRICE! The buyers set the price in an auction. The ONLY thing we negotiate in an auction is price. In its most fair light, in this context, his assertions that public land sales are gutting agriculture can only have one interpretation. That is, “agriculture lacks the self-control to responsibly bid on auctions so we need to stop public land sales.” He allows his opinion to limit the freedom of not only sellers but also the very industry he seeks to protect. He is cutting many buyers out of opportunities to buy farms they’d never had if it was not for public land sales. Does he know how many people wake up to find a farm sold overnight and they wished they’d had an opportunity to buy it? If I give him the benefit of the doubt, he’s telling me “Auctions are an incredibly powerful tool for selling an asset and getting the highest price” to which I say “I know, I’ve been saying that for a long time.”

Affording Farmland

In the column of bad math, terrible reasoning, and ignoring the elephant in the room, the author lays out the argument that land purchased at $10,000 per acre with 5% interest is an annual payment of $792/acre. You have to put your blinders on to accept this and develop any sort of sympathy for anybody other than new farmers. While the author references multi-generational farms numerous times, he notes how many farmers inherited farms from their families. He uses an example of simple math on one single farm, ignoring the other assets the farmer owns. Which in most cases, are completely debt free. He really showed that it’s easier for farmers to afford land today than it was for their forefathers. Nowadays, borrowing money for farms is easier when you have other owned assets to leverage as collateral and other assets that generate profit to afford more land. What an incredible blessing to be in such a spot in life! If it was me, I’d be very thankful for that $792-acre payment. I am in the unfortunate category that my family left farming three generations before I was born so I inherited nothing… zero.

Foreclosed Farms In Iowa

It’s easy to see that few farms are being foreclosed in Iowa and those payments are somehow getting made. Are farms failing due to the cost of land? In 2018, there were only 13 farm bankruptcies across the entire state of Iowa. In 2019, there were 27 farm bankruptcies in the entire state of Iowa. In 2020, there were 34. In 2020, there were 85,000 farms in Iowa according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. While I can’t account for each of the bankruptcies, I can tell you the majority of them were dairy farms that lost milk contracts in the Covid era. A total of 27 out of 85,000 farms account for 0.031764% of farms in Iowa that failed in 2019. It’s a tiny fraction that doesn’t even scratch the surface. At the same time, 1.58 billion dollars in Market Facilitation Program payments were paid to farmers in Iowa to offset losses and coronavirus-related market damages. I say there are always necessary fail-safes in place that others don’t get, especially the auctioneers and the landowners.

The author says, “Once we enter into the realm of irrationality, there are no limits. Where does it end? It ends nowhere good for the work people in agriculture who want to be there even after the fallout.” And the truth is, nobody forces anyone to bid at an auction. If you can’t afford something, you should never even bid on it. You don’t have to have it. You are competing against each other. You guys are the only ones setting the prices for land today. You are all in the same business, producing the same commodity, selling to the same market. You only have one job at an auction, bid its value, and walk away when it no longer makes financial sense to you and your future. The last person standing is the person we were looking for. Only bidders have the ability to take it into “the realm of irrationality.”

Should You Sell Inherited Farmland?

This entire article was like a handbook on how to confuse a landowner and weaken or emotionally manipulate them into submission. There were so many laughable ploys to pull on heartstrings in this piece, that it’s hard to choose which ones to address. Here is another though. “What will happen when the next generation of farmers cannot afford to own the land and ownership gets outside the community? In a worse scenario, what will happen if farmers in the community try to play in the arena and go bankrupt on the anvil of a whiplash economy.” First of all, we have to ignore that almost all farms have already received the efforts of multiple previous generations. In other words, the inheritance of millions of dollars in assets of a turn-key farm operation that generates profit every year. To blindly accept that the auctioneers and sellers will be responsible for the future demise of agriculture is to believe that spoons do make people fat. Cause and effect arguments with misplaced responsibility seem to be the norm in 2022. I offer back the same argument I have made many times above, farmers are the ones bidding and nobody is forcing them to bid. 

Land Investors 

Is investors owning land a bad thing? I can offer some personal opinions for what they are worth. Do you know how many times a farmer has called me and said “I called an investor I work with and he wants me to get him some information on the farm you are selling”? First, who is pulling the investors into the market? We already know only about 11% of purchases in Iowa are made by investors and many of them are working directly with a farmer already. Why would farmers want an investor working with them? Because they can keep capital free for equipment and supply purchases. They can expand their operation, and increase efficiencies with less capital outlay. It’s obviously working for some farmers so which farmers get to decide whether investors should be in or out of the market and denied ownership?

“Farmland is a highly valuable resource.  You should always listen to reason and ask questions when you are selling land. Always be aware of your own obligations and consider what you are told without accepting everything as truth.  Some more than others are subjected to pressures.  Not everybody is a liar and not everybody is telling the truth, it’s up to you to sort out the difference.” Jason Smith, Auctioneer and Land Broker

Who Owns Farmland in Iowa?

What does an investor look like? Here is a place where my divergent opinions from the original author may come back together. Most investors are a single person. My mother-in-law grew up on a family farm. She inherited a share of her dad’s land. She sold her share to a family member and used the funds to purchase a farm of her own. She rents it to a farmer. She’s an investor. There are many investors just like this, but there are also the Bill Gates of the world, China, and other huge organizations that might certainly cause some concern for agriculture in the future. Iowa has laws against corporate and foreign ownership, and while there are some ways around it and I can’t say it’s 100% it’s strong. However, it’s stronger than most. Many of our neighboring states have varying restrictions but none as strong as Iowa. I believe Iowa needs to do more still, I think they need to make it stronger and update our laws to match the modern world. I think some of the funds and organizations investing in Iowa land aren’t always in the best interest of our future. I absolutely agree that NO foreign country should be allowed to own land in Iowa. There are new ways for people to invest in land where they are using crowdfunding to pool money from many people and buy farms too. Does this fractional interest ownership stand to segment land ownership so much that it literally changes the face of the countryside? Should these be allowed? Many charitable organizations are also investors in farmland parking large sums of money in one place and using the annual income for other good causes. Isn’t that a good thing?

Future of Family Farms

Let’s talk about the heirs of family farms. While the author paints them to be these awful, greedy, evil creatures that only got lucky to inherit land from their family. Just because they did not possess the “grit” to continue farming, they cashed out into a windfall of cash that they eventually will be sad about like Powerball winners. If I could insert a barf emoji, it would go here. I also want to scream “are you joking me”. You compare the heirs of family farms, the children and grandchildren of the farmers that bought, owned, and worked that land for the benefit of their family “lottery winners” and then argue you should be allowed to buy it cheaper and benefit from it for your lifetime and possibly the lifetime of your children and grandchildren…. Not theirs? Can you say entitlement? I mean seriously, are you joking? And you said it out loud and put it in a publication for all to see. Those men and women that have passed worked hard so their families would have something. They did it to support their family and make a living. They left a legacy and whatever that family wants to do with it is up to them. We are free people in America and it’s not your place to judge them or try to enrich yourself from their inheritance. If you don’t like the price, keep your hand out of the air. However, if you are like smart farmers, you know land is always too high. It was too high when their parents bought it and it will be too high when you buy it because you are not buying it for today, but you are basing your arguments on the economics of today. You are buying it for the future reward of owning it.

Future Land Prices

The argument of land prices being too high is one that’s always used to keep the discussion in “right now”. Yes, I’ll just agree, land prices are too high right now. It’s why nobody can start farming today. But your land purchase isn’t for right now. You’ll still own it in 20-30-40-50 years. What you pay today will look cheap in 30 years just like the land prices 30 years ago in 1982 look cheap today. In 1982 in Iowa, land averaged $1,801 per acre. In 2021, the average price of farmland in Iowa was $9,751 per acre. Nobody is upset that you will make a profit from owning the land you buy at today’s prices, but you get to use it in the future as land prices appreciate and reap the many benefits of land ownership. However, you are not disclosing that in the argument.

Iowa Partition Laws

While I found the article to be completely absurd, I looked up the author’s website and read about him and his services. I think he genuinely wants to do good and sees the issues but assigns the blame to the wrong people. Which in my opinion, will never create an acceptable solution. I can see he offers a very valuable service in helping farm families negotiate among themselves to allow some heirs to keep farming while others that preferred to sell do remain owners. That’s always an extremely delicate situation with no easy answer. I believe every person has the right to exercise their inheritance as they see fit and I know one person’s decision can hurt another. That said, we are all responsible for our own lives and have to make the best decisions for us. Iowa’s partition laws and the recent adoption of Owelty payments are beneficial equitable remedies that equalize value and can contribute to better solutions than we once had.

Farm and Land Auction Company 

I can actually commiserate with the author in some aspects of my own industry, farm real estate, and farm auctioneering. “Go Big or Go Home” is alive and well in our field, as well. One of the fallouts of high land prices for my industry is that over the last 10 years, everybody has popped up and become an auctioneer or farm manager. Large farm auction companies are now merging with other large farm auction companies to become huge mammoth auction companies and gobbling up all of the business while maxing profits. They do this by hiring and creating armies of what many in my industry believe are unqualified, untrained “picture takers.” It results in blocking out small and medium-sized auction companies with higher-quality, experienced, trained and qualified auctioneers to interface with the seller. They get the option of reducing commissions so low it’s only profitable to them as they see fit to ensure we can’t compete on some clients. Auctioneering has boiled down to audience size and we’ve had to find ways to reach the same size audience as the large companies but provide better service, communication, and individualized outcomes. Our commission rate for selling farmland is less than 40% of what it was when I started in the business. While farmland prices have gone up, we’ve had to reduce our commission rates and increase volume to remain viable and active in the market. We keep finding ways to remain profitable despite the challenges by not blaming others and understanding the idea that competition is a good thing. Our plight is absolutely no different than what farms or almost any other industry is experiencing today.

Auctions are Protective and Force Honesty

Being an auctioneer, done correctly is a noble profession.  Farmland auctions are simply a superior marketing method.  Not only are they superior they are the fairest and most transparent way to sell anything.  Everybody gets a fair opportunity to bid and buy.  I have always enjoyed being in a position to help guide, protect and maximize the value of my client’s assets through competitive bidding.  I genuinely enjoy sale day, meeting buyers, helping answer their questions, figuring out problems, or resolving conflicts.  The world on any given day can throw a myriad of problems our way but there has never been a time I felt like we should go backward, and negotiate in dark back rooms because auctions will always lend themselves to honest dealings when everybody can see what’s happening.

Selling Land to Beginning Farmers

I want to close with one simple request of the author. I see the world constantly debating the idea that new farmers are unable to get started today. Farmland prices are too high, inputs too high, equipment too high. Everybody feels bad that “beginning farmers” are left behind and it gets all kinds of lip service. That is until it’s time to do something about it. I’ve often said, “that world doesn’t care about beginning farmers until it’s convenient.” While I wholeheartedly wish there was a way to help people start farming and make land affordable, the fact is it’s just not going to happen. If you want to start a farm today you either have to win the lottery, inherit a lot of cash, start a successful business to generate the cash, or find a way to create more profit on a small number of acres. I always tell people that start talking about this issue, “if it’s a genuine concern I’d challenge you to take a portion of your land, price it below market value, and offer it to a person wanting to start farming at a price they can afford.” Nobody is ever willing to do that. It’s easy to write articles or start social media posts and spend from everybody else’s checkbook, but it’s more difficult when faced with writing the check for the ills of our world from your own checkbook. It’s the problem nobody wants to pay for because there is no gain from it when established farms are already producing the food we need and we all tend to be happy with that. There are viable options to start beginning farmer programs beyond loan guarantees from FSA. I’ve seen successful transactions, discounted land deals, and even gifts of land from families to those who are just starting out.

 

For those that might be interested I looked up the author’s website and I’ll even link to him here as a gesture of goodwill. If you agree with him or believe your family can benefit you can use or learn about his services at http://www.farmestate.com/team/steve-bohr

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