December 2021 Book Review: Fields of Gold

Financing the Global Land Rush

Madeleine Fairbairn

Quem compra terra não erra (One can’t go wrong buying land).

Brazilian expression (Fields of Gold, page 106)

Summary

The standard formula for stories about rural land ownership take us into the kitchens of farm families and into community organizing meetings. Whereas these stories focus on the impact to farmers and other residents, Fields of Gold shifts the perspective. Here we’re on the other side of the deal, alongside investors at farmland investment conferences and meetings with the people financing this modern land rush.

Large tracts of land change hands regularly around the world, but the author focuses on two of the largest farm real estate markets in terms of maturity and financial value: the USA and Brazil. She finishes the book with a discussion of implications and solutions for the negative impacts.

Takeaway

As an outsider, I think of the financial return on investment in farmland in one primary dimension – productivity. As in, how much money can a person make off an acre by growing things on it? Harder to quantify secondary considerations bring in accounting for carbon sequestration, cultural importance, viewshed, water quality, wildlife habitat and more. But in the 1970s and 1980s, a new value snuck into the equation. Farmland now has value as a strictly financial asset – one that is bought, traded, and managed much like bonds or other types of real estate. And also one that continues to soar in price. Just as the intrinsic value of a financial instrument can vary greatly from the market value, the same now holds for farmland, with many institutional investors long farm and timber trusts.

An ongoing problem she highlights is the disconnect between who benefits and how. Fiduciary responsibility of investment managers implies that environmental and social impacts of land consolidation and trading may need to be foregone in favor of returning or preserving financial value for investors. In other words, a downside of the financialization is that even if an investment management group wanted to “do the right thing” by protecting valuable ecosystems or sites of important cultural heritage, the law may bind them to prioritizing financial returns over these other considerations. Dr. Fairbairn provides some possible solutions in the conclusion (p138): corporate codes of conduct, activist campaigns targeting particular investors, and cooperative investment structure.

Will I recommend it to friends?

Yes. At 147 pages, it’s a quick read, and the chapters could be read independently for anyone that might want to skip around. You’d be challenged to find a more objective, critical look at the global land rush that includes the insider perspective. If one exists, let me know.

Who should read this?

If you’re interested  in alternative investments or the implications of non-farmers owning massive tracts of farms and timber, you’ll want to pick up this book. Though there’s lots of meaty information about how the process of financialization took place, the author also discusses the implications of trading in something so essential to human well-being:

“…the ‘highest and best uses of land from the perspective of capital accumulation are not necessarily the highest and best uses from the perspective of environmental sustainability or economic justice.”

Fields of Gold, page 63

Side notes

The book is easier to understand if you have a basic grounding in the language of financial investment. (If you don’t, keep a browser tab open to Investopedia.)

Know of any farm or timber cooperatives? I’d love to hear about them. Please leave a comment or shoot me an email.

The book is available as a free download. F R E E. Find it here. Thanks, UC Santa Cruz! Go Banana Slugs!

Related organizations & papers:
Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

What owns the land: the corporate organization of farmland investment, The Journal of Peasant Studies, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2020.1786813 by Loka Ashwood, John Canfield, Madeleine Fairbairn & Kathryn De Master (2020)

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