U.S. private farmland investments generated a total return of 7.8% in 2021 as reported by the National Council of Real Estate Investment Fiduciaries (NCREIF) Farmland Index, improving 475 basis points (bps) from the previous year, reaching the highest annual level since 2015 (at 10.4%). The 7.8% reached in 2021 was higher than the five-year average of 5.7%. Annual cropland properties generated 11.1% in total return (up 686bps from 2020), while permanent crop properties posted 3.1% in total return (up 179bps from 2020). Regional farmland performance varied significantly. Return performance also varied considerably across crop type: Almonds generated negative returns, while pistachios, wine grapes, and row crop investments had healthy returns. The strength exhibited by the index is supported by the strong underlying market fundamentals in 2021, such as strong domestic and global demand amid localized production disruptions in South America resulting in high crop prices and the continued strong interests in farmland assets among the investment communities.
The annual total NCREIF Farmland Index returns were supported by positive recoveries in both income returns and capital appreciation last year; higher income returns were a result of significantly improved row crop market conditions. The demand for agricultural commodities, especially corn and soybeans, has seen significant improvement since late 2020, as global demand for feed crops increased and domestic demand for corn in ethanol production recovered. Normalized international trade relationships between the United States and other major partners, especially China, provided additional market demand for U.S. crops. The second component of the index’s total returns, capital appreciation, also saw a sharp reversal of the compressing appreciation rates over the past three years, reflecting increasing appetite and confidence in the asset class amid an ultra-low interest-rate environment.
The health of the broader U.S. farm economy benefited from positive market conditions and the overall economic recovery in the United States and globally in 2021. The USDA estimates that 2021 U.S. crop cash receipts moved up 23.5% over 2020. The higher total cash receipts in 2021 were particularly encouraging because U.S. farmers experienced higher total revenue despite lower direct payments and ad hoc support programs, which decreased 40% from a record high of $45.7 billion in 2020 to $27.2 billion in 2021. The Phase One trade deal with China helped to provide much-needed tailwinds to demand for U.S. farm goods due to the removal or reduction of retaliatory tariffs. In terms of actual sales of farm products, cash receipts from crop sales were up 17.9% from 2020, and livestock and dairy product sales were up by 17.7% in 2021 compared with 2020.
The most recognized measure of farmland return performance in the U.S. is the NCREIF Farmland Index, which is a quarterly measure of investment performance of farmland properties acquired in the private market for investment purposes. All properties in the index are held in a fiduciary environment. At year-end 2021, the index included 1,260 properties valued at $13.8 billion, up from 2020 when the index included 1,184 properties valued at $12.3 billion. The robust increase in the number and value of properties reflects growing institutional investment in the asset class. Annual cropland properties make up 76% of total properties in the index and 61% of its total value.
NCREIF provides detailed farmland returns by type of operation and region. Annual cropland properties need to be planted each year, including crops such as oilseeds, cotton, vegetables, and certain fresh fruits, while permanent cropland properties are dedicated to perennial trees, shrubs, or vines bearing crops such as almonds, apples, cranberries, and wine grapes. The largest permanent crop types in the index are wine grapes, almonds, and pistachios, combining to a total 73% of the permanent cropland value as of January 2022 NCREIF data.
At year-end 2021, the NCREIF Farmland Index included 958 annual cropland properties valued at $8.4 billion and 302 permanent cropland properties valued at $5.4 billion. In 2021, the largest NCREIF farmland region by market value was the Pacific West (39.5% of the index), followed by the Delta States (19.2%), the Corn Belt (11.3%), and the Mountain (8.1%) regions. The Delta States, the Corn Belt, and the Mountain regions showed an upward percentage share compared with the previous year; the remaining combined regions accounted for 21.9% of the index value.
Performance results by region and crop type
U.S. annual cropland properties generated 11.1% in total returns in 2021, up 686bps from 2020. In 2021, U.S. annual croplands’ operating income return was 3.6%, narrowly beating the income returns in 2020. The increased income returns in 2021 are a result of higher crop prices, driven by booming demand for agricultural crops both domestically and in the export markets. Besides the recovering demand for corn in domestic ethanol production, another key factor behind the increased demand for crops was the historical pace of Chinese imports of feed crops in 2021, especially corn. The drastic increase of Chinese corn imports, in conjunction with global crop production disruptions due to weather events in major production regions, increased the use of other row crops such as wheat as alternative feed sources, which collectively contributed to higher prices and healthy income returns for row crops. With positive market developments and increasing investor interest in row crop properties, capital appreciation rates for annual cropland posted a strong 7.2% annual rate, which was 645bps higher than for 2020.
The NCREIF Farmland Index reported that U.S. permanent cropland generated a total return of 3.1% in 2021. While that more than doubled 2020’s 1.3%, it was the third-weakest annual performance since the inception of the index in 1991. On a positive note, the operating income returns for permanent cropland improved 142bps over the previous year, ending at 4.4% in 2021. Most (71% by value) permanent cropland properties in the index are directly operated, contributing to more volatility in operating income than for annual cropland, which is mainly leased properties. On the other hand, permanent cropland’s capital appreciation returns were –1.32% in 2021, posting the third consecutive year of negative appreciation performance since 2019. This continuing trend of overall negative permanent cropland appreciation can be attributed to the mixed price outlooks for fruits and tree nuts amid challenging supply/demand dynamics in addition to increasing concerns over water resource availability in the Pacific West region.
Almonds accounted for 18% of the total permanent cropland value in the NCREIF index by market value, exerting a strong drag on permanent crop returns in 2021. Almonds’ total annual return was negative for the second straight year in 2021, down to –4.4% after posting –0.9% in 2020. The decline in almond returns reflects low-income returns due to record-breaking production, resulting in supply overhang and suppressed prices in addition to negative capital appreciation attributed to the concerns over the frequency and severity of droughts in California. Wine grapes, the largest component of the permanent crops by value, showed improvement in 2021 and generated 4.2% in total returns (up 697bps from 2020), reflecting positive income and appreciation returns. Pistachios were a bright spot among permanent crops, generating 9.4% in total returns in 2021, reflecting the continued growth of pistachio demand, both domestically and in export markets.
Regional farmland performance showed significant variations. While all eight of the largest regions in the NCREIF index saw positive income returns in 2021, two regions, the Pacific West and the Southeast, experienced negative appreciation rates. The Pacific West region, the single largest region in the index, accounting for 39.5% of the total index market value, had income returns at 4.5% in 2021 (up 103bps from 2020), while the appreciation rate was negative for the third consecutive year, resulting in 3.6% in overall return for 2021 (up 105bps from 2020). In addition to market factors, such as oversupplied market conditions for almonds and wine grapes in recent years, the consecutive negative capital appreciation rates since 2019 in this region partly reflected the continued concern over the impact of natural events, such as fire and droughts, as well as concerns over longer-term water availability in California. The Pacific Northwest experienced improvements in both income and appreciation returns from 2020, contributing to the nearly 1,200bps year-over-year increase in total returns.
The next two largest regions—the Delta States and Corn Belt regions—accounting for 30.5% of the index, experienced modest increases in operating income and produced significantly higher appreciation returns in 2021 compared with the previous year. In 2021, the Delta States had capital appreciation returns of 6.8% and the Corn Belt had 15%, both of which are the highest appreciation rates in each region since the 2012/2013 commodity boom. The Mountain region saw total returns increase by 260bps in 2021 from 2020, driven by a 266bps in capital appreciation increase from the prior year. Among the three smaller regions (the Southeast, the Lake States, and the Southern Plains) the Southeast experienced retreating performance across income and appreciation from 2020, while both the Lake States and the Southern Plains produced higher total returns compared with a year ago.
The outlook for 2022 U.S. agricultural investments strikes an optimistic tone following overall positive performance in 2021. On the macroeconomic level, economic recovery and societies reopening around the world are driving forces behind higher demand for goods and services. In agriculture, an increasingly diverse and varied global diet is stimulating rising demand for agricultural products. The growth of domestic consumption and international trade demand supports a bright outlook for 2022 crops. On the supply side, drought-affected South American crops and lower global inventory levels are also helping to elevate price outlooks for crops. There are also headwinds ahead for U.S. agriculture: As with all industries, agricultural production is feeling the squeeze of rising costs as inflationary pressure mounts. Global geopolitical and climatic uncertainties also present risks: The Russia-Ukraine conflict is expected to have profound repercussions for global economic growth and trade, especially given the disruption of international trade routes and fertilizer and energy market shocks. Climate and weather events will continue to be a determining factor for crop production, but farmland as an asset class remains attractive to investors looking for positive yields with low volatilities. Going forward, with renewed emphasis on sustainable resource management and resilient performance despite market uncertainties, farmland is expected to continue to be sought after by the investment community.
Farmland market indicators
Global corn production is expected to reach a new record of 1.2 billion metric tonnes (MMT), 8% higher than the 2021 marketing year, driven by gains in the United States, Argentina, China, and Brazil. In 2021, U.S. corn production is forecast to increase by 7%, to 384 MMT, primarily driven by yield returning to trend line (marketing year (MY) September 2021–August 2022). Brazil 2020 (MY March 2021–February 2022) production is estimated to decrease by 15%, from MY 2019 to 87 MMT, because dry weather caused a delay in planting the second crop. Brazil’s 2021 MY (March 2022–February 2023) production is forecast to increase by 31% to 114 MMT due to greater planting area and recovery from drought conditions. Argentina’s corn production is forecast to increase slightly to 52 MMT in the 2020 MY (March 2021–February 2022) before rebounding 5% to 54 MMT in the 2021 MY, due to improved returns for corn. China’s production is forecast to increase by 5% from last year to 273 MMT (MY May 2021–April 2022).
Global 2021 MY soybean production is expected to decrease slightly from the previous MY to 364 MMT due to dry conditions in South America. U.S. soybean production is forecast to increase by 5% to 121 MMT due to increases in area and average yields (MY September 2021–August 2022). Brazilian production is forecast to increase 7% to 138 MMT in 2020 (MY February 2021–January 2022) before decreasing 3% in 2021 (MY February 2022–January 2023) to 134 MMT. Argentina’s soybean production is forecast to decline by 5% in 2020 (MY April 2021–March 2022) to 46 MMT and then decrease another 3% in 2021 (MY April 2022–March 2023) to 45 MMT, as farmers switch from soybeans to corn in anticipation of higher revenues and operational flexibilities.