Is Iowa Land a Good Investment?

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Is Iowa Land a Good Investment?
By

Bart Waldon

Iowa is situated in the heartland of America, blanketed with endless rows of corn and soybeans topping rich, black soil. Stretching for over 55,000 square miles across rolling plains in the Midwestern United States, the Hawkeye State has farming imprinted into its economy and culture. Known globally as the “Food Capital of the World”, around 86% of Iowa’s land area is utilized for agriculture.

This heavy focus on farming has made the state’s high-quality farmland some of the most valuable real estate in the country. For both local growers and institutional investors across the globe, owning Iowa fields has long provided stable returns through crop income and long-term capital appreciation of the dirt itself.

Yet after virtually guaranteed growth for over a decade, Iowa land values have retracted from all-time highs set in 2013-2014. Volatility has shaken the market recently, making investors question if this fertile land remains a smart asset investment or an increasingly risky speculation. By weighing the pros and cons, buyers can determine if the grass is still greener on the Iowa side moving into the 2020s.

The Historical Strength of Iowa Land

Agricultural land, even marginal quality soil, has substantially increased in value over most long-term holding periods throughout the past century. While momentary cyclical cooling periods have occurred, most notably the 1980s Farm Crisis, land valuations broadly recover and rise over decades.

Iowa has certainly reflected this general trend. Between 2000 to 2014 alone, prime Iowa cropland prices rose a staggering 511% before hitting all-time peaks. Adjusting for yearly inflation, Iowa acreage has nearly doubled in real-terms value from $2,147 per acre in 1970 to $4,052 per acre in 2020. That equates to consistent annualized returns in the 5-6% range over 50+ years.

And even despite recent modest declines between 2014-2019, demand continues to steadily rise for Iowa’s coveted farmland, especially higher quality parcels. In 2021, the state’s top-producing farms still sold for over $12,500 per acre on average - beating out every other state in overall valuations.

Beyond just appreciation potential, investors buying Iowa fields benefit from two strong annual income streams: crop production and cash rents. With ideal growing conditions across millions of acres of elite Heartland soil, Iowa consistently leads the nation in corn and soybean output, producing over 25% of total U.S. corn. This enormous production props up yearly revenues.

Additionally, land owners generate sizable rental income by leasing their ground to farmers. Cash rent rates came to an average of $260 per acre across Iowa in 2021. Between both revenue channels flowing in annually and long-term land valuations heading upward over time, farmland investing has yielded better risk-adjusted returns than many other asset classes historically, akin to the stock market.

Favorable taxes in the state also prevent major overhead costs from eroding landowners’ profits. Iowa ranks very low for property taxes at just 0.86% of assessed valuation on average. Additionally, inheritance tax exemptions allow land to be passed down across generations without burdensome tax bills diminishing estate values. With patient investing, land accessibility remains high in Iowa from a tax standpoint.

Cracks Forming in the Heartland’s Fertile Fields

However, while the largely positive narrative of ever-increasing farmland valuations held for decades on end, the 2010s demonstrated the market volatility that can severely impact land’s actual worth. After that extraordinary 511% return in Iowa cropland values early this century, growth trajectories reversed hard over the past seven years.

The state has now seen three straight years of across-the-board valuation declines from the 2013 peak. While 2022 finally saw the first uptick in yearly land prices, a minor 3.1% increase still leaves investors with negative inflation-adjusted returns throughout this entire decade. Demand may exist amongst buyers, but real profits have almost disappeared recently in Iowa.

The key driver sinking land’s stability is the fluctuating grain market introducing uncertainty and risk. Corn, soybeans, and other crops so integral to Iowa’s economy rely heavily on global commodity pricing. When market factors align positively, farm profits and land values boom accordingly. However, from 2014 onward, worldwide commodity economics turned severely bearish instead after years of bullish tailwinds, directly hitting the state’s agriculture industry.

There are several interconnected factors depressing the global grains complex currently. After surging higher between 2009-2014, crop prices are down about 40% for corn and over 20% lower for soybeans compared to early 2014. This stems from a few key trends converging simultaneously:

Firstly, bumper yields boosted by advances in seed technology and farming methods now produce more output per acre than ever before seen. However, demand has not kept pace with ballooning production volumes. Domestically, corn demand is capped by biofuel blend requirements and animal feed needs. Internationally, massive crops from rival exporters like Brazil and restrictions from China’s trade war have provided additional supply.

This combination of extra bushels flooding the market while demand growth lags lead to oversupply dynamics. Like any commodity, too much production depresses pricing across the board until equilibrium returns through adjusted output and consumption. But farmers and the Iowa economy at large are suffering short-term from this global commodity imbalance.

Additionally, grain merchandisers have modernized price risk management tremendously, utilizing complex derivatives like futures contracts and over-the-counter swaps to hedge exposure. Farmers now have more tools than ever for customized risk management. However, these modern financial instruments also introduce another layer of volatility into actual crop prices and farm revenues as positions change.

Ultimately, the cyclical ups and downs of commodity-driven agriculture have impacted Iowa more harshly than other states the past decade. Broadly positive market conditions helped spur the immense land valuation surge in the early 2000s. However, negative pressures the past seven years illustrates the risk tied to globally set grain prices that farms and investors must now adapt to through periods of depressed profitability.

Key Factors for Assessing Iowa Land Moving Forward

Given this rising uncertainty whether current downcycles are temporary setbacks or a permanent negative shift, prospective buyers must scrutinize opportunities carefully when evaluating modern Iowa farmland investment viability.

Timeframe and Goals

Every investor enters asset purchases with a vision - what is the strategy behind owning this land? Time horizons and risk tolerances vary amongst buyers.

Those with conservative, income-focused positions may continue holding farmland like Iowa to balance their broader portfolios, relying on consistent yearly rental payouts during any volatility cycles. This group emphasizes the current income stream.

Speculators however expected the stratospheric ascent of land valuations to continue indefinitely, without properly accounting for sudden downswings manifesting across agriculture lately. This segment often lacks patience for slower recovery periods.

Ultimately, investment goals frame risk perspectives. Even if land takes years to recover previous valuation peaks or rental rate high points, historical data still shows appreciation and income generation will eventually improve. Patient capital willing to buy and hold land for generations can likely still profit over enough time.

Individual Asset Analysis

Beyond macro-level market conditions, evaluating each land parcel individually is critical to determine actual financial return potential. Thorough financial analysis provides tangible metrics to filter out emotional assumptions.

What cash rents has this farm yielded owners over the past decade? What is its crop yield history and output potential based on soil quality tests? Has overall market value held stable, grown modestly, or declined severely in recent years...and how does that compare to regional or statewide trends? What are property tax and insurance overhead costs?

Running the numbers to forecast returns grounded in that land’s tangible earning ability - the soil itself - takes subjectivity out of the equation. Site visits also provide invaluable boots-on-the-ground perspective when assessing parcel particulars.

Formulating data-based financial projections focused on each asset’s profit engine - the dirt - allows investors to cut through recent market uncertainty with facts.

Diversification Strategy

Agricultural real estate like Iowa farmland can provide portfolio diversification for investors heavily allocated in public equities like stocks or bonds. Because land values often move countercyclically from these other assets, mixing both into a portfolio balances risk across changing market environments.

Owning land stabilizes things when stocks face recessionary selloffs - the inherent value of dirt itself persists as food demand holds steady. However, land tying closely to commodity crop pricing lately shows agriculture not fully isolated from financial markets either.

Iowa land specifically may now share more risk traits with traded assets than previously assumed. Buyers should incorporate hard assets like farmland carefully within a diversified portfolio, rather than expecting them to damper all volatility like before.

Local Perspective

State-level statistics provide helpful reference points, but local dynamics also greatly impact valuations at the county level. Buyers should consult area-specific data, local real estate professionals, and other stakeholders before purchasing. Thriving regional trade centers may sustain stronger economics than rural locales.

Recreational attributes like water access or hunting potential can enhance values also. And proximity to growing metropolitan centers holds promise for eventual non-agricultural development way down the road. Understanding hyper-local supply and demand nuances leads to informed decisions.

The Outlook for Iowa Land Values

Given today’s headwinds, Iowa land certainly still offers income generation and appreciation potential as a long-term investment - but rational analysis is required more than ever. Buyers must filter out emotion, leverage concrete data metrics, focus locally, and implement patient holding periods to realize optimal risk-adjusted returns going forward.

The days of guaranteed fast growth in both yearly crop payouts and dirt valuations itself are likely over, at least for a while until markets stabilize from a prolonged negative commodity cycle worldwide. Investors today must parse through more uncertainty and volatility factors compared to the reliable bullish tailwinds benefiting agriculture most years prior to 2014.

But for certain buyers with decade-plus time horizons, willing to purchase discounted land parcels that limit downside, Iowa will probably continue slowly building wealth over upcoming generations. The state’s world-class soil isn’t disappearing anytime soon. Population and food demand trends remain favorable macro tailwinds long-term as well, even if crop prices whipsaw temporarily from prevailing oversupply.

In the end, the jury is still out whether Iowa farmland presents a screaming buy today, or whether more patient buyers should wait for even lower valuations to maximize margins of safety. But for those unwilling or unable to perform due diligence before purchasing, the days of profitable “sure bets” in agriculture seem over. At least until commodity markets realign from years of disequilibrium.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Is Iowa farmland still a good investment after recent value declines?

Iowa land still offers long-term income and appreciation potential, but buyers today face more volatility and risk than years past. Thorough financial analysis is key before purchasing to ensure adequate returns relative to the price paid. Upside remains for patient investors, but guaranteed gains are gone.

What kind of annual returns can be expected from owning Iowa farmland?

Real annual returns averaged 4-6% over the very long run. Recently, Iowa land has seen negative inflation-adjusted returns since 2013. Income via cash rents provides steady payouts near 2-4% of land value, but appreciation is uncertain short term until macro conditions improve.

How do taxes impact returns on Iowa farmland investments?

Iowa has relatively low property tax rates compared to other states at under 1% of valuation. The state also allows valuable inheritance tax exemptions when passing down land to future generations, helping preserve capital for buyers with long timeframes.

What characteristics or traits make for the most profitable Iowa farmland investments today?

The highest quality parcels with rich soil, strong yield history, and competitive cash rental rates offer investors the best risk-adjusted returns currently. Proximity to regional hubs and features like recreational potential add further value for certain buyer objectives.

About The Author

Bart Waldon

Bart, co-founder of Land Boss with wife Dallas Waldon, boasts over half a decade in real estate. With 100+ successful land transactions nationwide, his expertise and hands-on approach solidify Land Boss as a leading player in land investment.

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