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Published October 17, 2011, 05:25 AM

Pifer’s plans land expo for would-be investors

FARGO, N.D. — With returns from other investments uncertain, nonfarmers are looking to land as a “safe haven” or diversification for their investment portfolio.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — With returns from other investments uncertain, nonfarmers are looking to land as a “safe haven” or diversification for their investment portfolio.

That’s why Kevin Pifer, owner of Pifer’s Auction and Realty in Moorhead, Minn., has launched what he’s dubbed the Great Plains Land Expo Nov. 30 at the Ramada Plaza Suites in Fargo, N.D. The event is being presented by Pifer’s and The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead (sister publication to Agweek and the Grand Forks Herald, among others) and co-sponsored by KFGO radio of Fargo.

The expo goes beyond agricultural land and is designed to educate conference-goers about opportunities in agriculture, minerals, wind energy and farm policy, Pifer says. It’s aimed at anyone with a vested interest in land, land developers, mineral interest owners, landowners, investors and farm operators.

Inspired in NY

Pifer says he got the idea for a regional conference after attending a national conference in May in New York. That event, sponsored by HighQuest Partners of Boston and St. Louis, attracted some 600 attendees from more than 10 countries. Most were investment bankers, private investors or pension funds. All currently are investing in agriculture or strong interest in land, natural resources, processing plants — “anything associated with agriculture.”

One of the participants was the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association-College Retirement Equity Association — with $450 billion assets. The company owns $1 billion in farmland and has a desire to buy another $1 billion over the next five years, Pifer says.

Potential land and energy-related investments are seeing the uncertainty and low returns in other markets and are looking for areas that offer the possibility of even modest gains. Returns on agricultural land have averaged in the 5 to 6 percent area, but North Dakota land values increased by 26 percent in 2010 alone, without inflation.

There are anti-corporate farming laws in some states, including North Dakota, but pension funds or farmland investment funds sometimes can structure themselves to comply.

“The way I look at it, if you hired anyone on our agenda, you’d pay $250 to $300 an hour, so it’s a good deal,” Pifer says. “It’s meant to be a learning conference, with people who every day are on the front lines, in the trenches, doing working in the areas they’re talking about.”.

Pifer, 52, originally from the Larimore, N.D., area, started his auction company in 2000. The company has grown Pifer had a career in banking, insurance as well as state and federal government work, before starting his own company. Among other things, Pifer’s manages 30,000 acres in 42 farms in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. “Land Report” in 2010 ranked Pifer’s as the fourth-largest among U.S. land auction companies, with $55.1 million in gross sales.

The lineup so far

Among the speakers at the event: Former U.S. Agriculture Secretary and former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer of Fargo will offer an opening welcome. Other speakers:

n Dave Gustafson, senior fellow at Monsanto Co., and environmental and ag policy modeling lead. He initially worked on Monsanto’s development of computer models for predicting the environmental behavior of crop chemicals, especially their impact on water quality. In 2007, he led the Monsanto Fellows Climate Change Panel, studying the scientific certainty of global climate modeling and the impact of climate change on agriculture around the world.

n William W. Wilson, a North Dakota State University agricultural economist of world renown, (who also spoke at the New York conference) will give an overview about long-term investment outlooks in agri-culture in the U.S. and around the world, relative to other sectors. Pifer says Wilson will comment, among other things, about the influence of China on future agricultural market trends. Wilson holds a doctorate in agricultural economics from the University of Manitoba. He focuses on risk and strategy as applied to agriculture and agribusiness with a focus on marketing, procurement, transportation, logistics, international marketing and competition.

n Sue Martin, president of Ag & Investment Services Inc., is an analyst for numerous broadcast venues. Her markets column appears weekly in Agweek magazine.

n Gerald “Jerry” Gulke, owner of the Gulke Group Inc., is a consulting company. Gulke helps manage a corn/soybean family farm near Ellendale, Ill., in the northern part of the state. He is a contributing writer for Top Producer magazine and writes a monthly Marketing Strategy column,

n William Guy III, a Bismarck, N.D., lawyer, works with the Vogel Law Firm and focuses on estate planning, business succession and probate work. He’s also a certified public accountant. At the event, he’ll discuss realistic case studies and talk about estate tax minimization, asset protection entities, entities that allow surviving children to retain farmland when no children actively farm, wills and revocable living trusts and entities to eliminate Minnesota estate tax on Minnesota vacation homes of North Dakota residents.

Other speakers: Jeff (“Professor 1031”) Peterson, a Minnesota lawyer and principle in the Commercial Partners Exchange Co. L.L.C. who specializes in deferred sales trusts and wildcat tax credits; Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Industrial Commission oil and gas division; Tami Norgard, a managing partner in the Vogel Law Firm of Fargo; Kent Ellis, owner of Aurora Energy Solutions L.L.C., an oil and gas land brokerage firm with offices in Bismarck and Oklahoma City; Roger Minch, Serkland Law Firm, Fargo, on wind energy investment; and Greyson Colvin, managing partner of Colvin & Co. L.L.P.; and Marc Schober, Minneapolis, editor of Farmland Forecast, an educational blog on the rationale for investing in farmland.

Pifer says registration is $95 per person. Registration can be made online at, but also can be taken up to the time of the conference. The schedule of events still is being completed, including a nationally recognized keynoter.

The night before the event, Colvin & Co. L.L.P. will have a related seminar on the ABCs of Investing in Farmland, which will be helpful to new investors and useful for veterans.