Farm advice: Investing in farming

By: Neil Dent, Gifford Devine law partner


There’s a growing market for investing or developing a farm or horticultural business. Farm Trader finds out more.

With rapidly increasing land values, there’s a growing market for investing or developing a farm or horticultural business, despite the rising costs and the ever more onerous and complicated compliance issues around resource management, health and safety, and other matters.

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Investing in farming is usually carried out through structures such as:

  • equity investments
  • syndication, and
  • partnerships

Benefits

The benefits of these sorts of arrangements are to increase the pool of capital leading to greater scale and the sharing of risk.

At the same time, farmers are often looking for a way to diversify their farming interests. Rather than, for example, having all their eggs in the ‘dairy’ basket, farmers may want an interest in kiwifruit or apples, something completely different so the total investment risk is better spread.

Sometimes, a farmer is looking for a retirement investment after the ‘family farm’ has been sold. There may be a strong preference to invest in a sector that they already know and understand, and have a feel for rather than an investing in, say, the share market where there is reliance on the advice of others.

New Zealand is experiencing an era of historically low interest rates; in fact, interest rates have been low since the 2008 economic crisis, which is now 10 years ago. With rates low and promising to remain at that level for some time, investing in farming enterprises is attractive, particularly with various sectors producing historically good returns. Are there, however, any dangers or pitfalls in investing in this way?

Assessing the risks and pitfalls

There are many pitfalls in farm investing for the inexperienced or naive. In a sense, those dangers and/or pitfalls are the same that are present in any investment; you just have to be aware of them.

There is no fixed way to invest in farming ventures. Having said that, often a group of, say two or three people pool their capital and buy a farm or orchard, enter into a shareholders’ agreement to cover how the investment is to be managed, and then get on with it.

With an arrangement like that, the main issue is to know who you are investing with because whatever you put in your shareholders’ agreement, it’s the personal relationship between the parties that’s usually the primary factor as to whether the venture is successful or not.

With more formal investment structures such as the type of dairy and now vineyard, kiwifruit and other orchard syndications that various companies are carrying out, an investor is much more removed from the actual investment than if you’re investing with a group directly. While syndicate investors may feel they know about the sector, they will also be needing to make a judgement on the management skills of the promoter.

Often, these syndications will involve purchasing a farm or orchard outright and putting either a management agreement or a lease-back in place. In these situations, the investor will be looking at the usual factors such as the type of farming, where the land is, the details of the actual proposal, and so on.

However, a prime determinant on whether the investment will be successful is to know who is actually running the day-to-day management of the operation, and who is supervising. This is absolutely critical.

Getting out

One of the major issues with any of these types of investment to be considered is the ability to exit the investment at a time that suits you. When you invest in the share market, exiting is easy; you just ring up your broker and sell your shares.

Similarly, with term deposits with the bank, you know when the term will mature. If you own your own farm outright and you want to exit, you simply put it on the market.

Where you’re involved in a syndication or partnership or equity investment, exiting is unlikely to be as easy. Most shareholders’ agreements have provisions for partners to exit, usually involving offering the shares to the other partners first and, if there are no takers, there’s a clause to require the farm or orchard to be sold.

Syndicated investments often have an informal market. Generally, however, there is no guarantee that you can exit when you want. Therefore, while the benefits of these investments for a farmer are the ability to diversify, have access to a larger scale than might otherwise have been available, and also investing in an area in which you might have some knowledge, there are still downsides such as the liquidity of the investment.

In addition, as with all farming ventures, there will be factors outside of the control of the participants, no matter how well the syndication is managed, that can impact on a proposed sale.

Having said that, the increasing availability of investments in this area means they are likely to be an investment that will be of interest to many in the farming sector.

Take advice

With any of these arrangements, getting the right legal advice around the structures is critical. Whether you’re setting something up yourself, or participating in an investment promoted by others, a proper understanding of what legal documentation is required, what it means, who is involved and also the regulatory framework is critical. 

About Neil

Neil Dent is a partner in Hastings law firm, Gifford Devine. He specialises all aspects of rural and commercial property and related issues. Gifford Devine is a member of NZ LAW Limited, an association of 55 independent law firms practising in more 70 locations.
Information given in this column should not be a substitute for legal advice.

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