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A new golden rule: ‘He who controls the land controls our food’

More Than Dirt: Threats to food supply include Wall Street and foreign ownership of farmland, green energy and yield growth in grain crops.

Mike Downey, Farm business consultant

May 29, 2024

4 Min Read
Sunset over corn field
Getty Images/iStockPhoto/LE Reynolds

An old golden rule says: “He who owns the gold makes the rules.” In agriculture, we grow food from farms. Farmland is our equivalent to owning gold, which is why our golden rule would read more like: “He who controls the land controls our food.”

Of all the places to find inspiration on this topic, today’s came about while watching a Terminator rerun. In the movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger holds out on a farm in Texas where he protects a family and their food supply.

Those scenes took me back to watching my grandparents live self-sufficiently on a small farm: growing chickens, cattle, hogs, multiple species of crops and a garden full of all the produce you’d ever want. On our farms today, drones, robots, and artificial intelligence would also be part of everyday life. These are things I once thought were make-believe in those Terminator scenes.

In all seriousness, a lot has changed in agriculture from then to now, and as we look ahead there are many factors to consider when we pause to think about one of our most basis needs: food.

World population

The world population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050.

Demographic factors that contribute to population growth

When you dig deeper, a significant amount of this growth will come from only six or seven countries, including the United States. However, despite these estimates, the rate of population growth per year is actually slowing.

Supply and demand

In all actuality, the debate and concern over food supply and security may simply boil down to a supply versus demand equation.

Demand

Even though the rate of population growth is slowing, there will still be a lot more mouths to feed in 2050 compared to my grandparents’ generation. Standards of living and appetites are much higher and global demand for food, fuel and fiber is rising.

Supply

  • Variables such as weather, war and trade pose threats to food security, but so does shrinking farmland. Domestically, it’s estimated we are losing arable land to development and urban sprawl at a greater pace each year.

  • What about yields and technology? A recent study from the University of Illinois found the growth of U.S. yields has slowed considerably since 2013. There is not enough data to prove whether this is a long-term trend, and researchers seem to favor the theory that this is due to weather patterns, not decelerating technology. Either way, several variables challenge yield growth.

  • The transition to green energy also threatens the amount of land available for food production. Recent trends suggest more and more landowners are considering taking land out of production for investment, such as solar farm projects, which may offer greater returns.

Graph of solar responses Ag Economy Barometer

Competition

Soaring land prices, land grabs and carbon programs are causing a “land squeeze” according to the reports referenced below. And, a front page story in the Des Moines Sunday RegisterWe’re losing farmland like crazy” quotes farmers saying “Wall Street” farmland purchases concern them more than foreign ownership. Foreign ownership in Iowa is less than 2%, while land holdings by corporations and big-money investors have increased from 13% to 20% in the last five years. 

Who is buying farmland pie graph

Who will produce our food in the future? Another study from the University of Illinois suggests we don’t have an aging farmer problem in agriculture, but rather an entrance problem for the younger generation. The cost of capital is extremely high, posing a significant barrier to entry for most young farmers who represent the next generation producing our food.

Land and food

Do I think we have a food security problem? This is difficult for me to imagine given all the resources and technology available to us, but some parts of the world are already dealing with food problems. For me, it comes down to who controls the land where our food is produced. Hopefully, those who control our farmland will always have good interests in mind, but the ownership and control of land will look much different than my grandparents’ generation. Your neighbors will no longer be your only competitors for land!

Now, more than ever, it’s important for all of us to work together in agriculture to keep farms in our families and our local communities.

Downey has been consulting with farmers, landowners and their advisors for nearly 25 years. He is a farm business coach and transition consultant with UnCommon Farms. Reach Mike at [email protected].

References:

  1. the-evolution-of-farmland-as-an-institutional-asset-pages-digital.pdf (nyc3.cdn.digitaloceanspaces.com) Univ. of IL land specialist Ailie Elmore and President Steve Bruere of Peoples Co. of Clive, IA

  2. Age of US Farmers: Not a Problem.” Zulauf, C. farmdoc daily May 8, 2024

  3. “World population expected to reach 9.8 billion in 2050” by United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

About the Author(s)

Mike Downey

Farm business consultant, Uncommon Farms

Mike Downey is a farm business coach and transition consultant with UnCommon Farms. His passion for helping farmers stems from his own farm roots, growing up on his family’s grain and livestock farm near Roseville, Ill. He is also co-owner of Iowa-based Next Gen Ag Advocates which facilitates a unique matching and mentoring program between retiring and incoming farmers. He and his wife are also the founders of Farm Raised Capital, an investment community for farmers and ag professionals with common interests in diversifying through alternative off-farm real estate investments. Reach Mike at [email protected].   

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