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Published September 09, 2013, 10:28 AM

ND land values peak

No one knows the future, but there is a good possibility that we have seen the last of the rising land value reports for a while.

By: Andrew Swenson, Agweek

No one knows the future, but there is a good possibility that we have seen the last of the rising land value reports for a while.

It has been a historic run that culminated with an exclamation mark. On Aug. 2, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported results from a June survey showing average North Dakota cropland values at $1,910 per acre, which was a 41.5 percent increase from the previous year. At 30.2 percent, South Dakota had the next highest increase. The national average was 13 percent.

The survey confirms the 42 percent increase from an earlier survey commissioned by the North Dakota Department of Land Trusts and the 46 percent increase reported by the North Dakota Chapter of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers.

In 2003, North Dakota cropland was less than one-fourth, $460 per acre, compared with its current value. During the past 10 years, it has averaged an annual increase of nearly 16 percent. During the past 100 years, the closest comparisons to this multiyear increase in values were 1973 through 1981 and 1942 through 1949. The values can be adjusted for inflation to compare the periods.

North Dakota cropland is now more than 20 percent greater than the previous highest inflation-adjusted land values, which occurred in 1979.

Consider the combination of circumstances that have fueled the strong land market and whether increases will continue. There have been several years of strong crop profits coupled with low interest rates. It is unusual that these conditions have been maintained for such an extended period because economic markets are constantly changing and adjusting. High prices should encourage greater production and lower the quantity demanded. The old saying is: “High prices cure high prices.”

Grain prices have been at higher levels since 2007. Higher grain prices have coincided with the increase of U.S. corn use for ethanol from 1.2 billion bushels in 2004 to more than 5 billion bushels in 2010.

Another price driver has been an increase in exports of U.S. soybeans to China.

North Dakota crop producers had historic returns in 2012. The average profit on cash-rented land, according to Farm Business Management Education reports, was more than $100 per acre for spring wheat, more than $200 per acre for soybeans and about $350 per acre for corn.

Gross and net returns for 2013 will be much less because of a combination of lower prices and yields. Average net returns could range from minus $50 to a positive $70 per acre for wheat, corn and soybeans. Although solid crop insurance protection limits the downside, 2013 profit will fall short of the expectations that were built during the 2007 through 2012 period. It will have a cooling impact on land values.

Going forward, a drop in crop prices will lessen crop insurance revenue guarantees, which, during the years of high prices, have given producers a strong financial backstop that contributed to increased land rents and values.

Another factor that has been important in driving land values has been low interest rates. It is indicative of the relatively poor returns of other assets in which people can invest. Ten years ago, an acceptable return on land investment (cash rent minus real estate taxes divided by land value) was more than 6 percent. Now it is about 3 percent. That alone has doubled land values.

To achieve a return of just 1 percentage point more, to 4 percent, land values would need to drop by one-fourth, while other factors held constant.

Most economists believe interest rates have bottomed out. The interest rate on 10-year U.S. Treasury bills declined from more than 5 percent in mid-2007 to around 1.5 percent in mid-2012. Rates have increased from 1.66 percent on May 1 to 2.87 percent on Aug. 21.

The outlook for federal support of agriculture is a negative for land values.

Subsidies for agriculture are expected to diminish after a new farm bill is legislated. For example, direct payments average about $10 per cropland acre in North Dakota. If direct payments are eliminated, the eventual impact on average land values could be a reduction of about $300 per acre, assuming the current 3 percent expected return on land.

Last, although net farm income and owner’s equity have flourished, total debt has increased. Much of the available cash has been ploughed back in the farm business by purchases of machinery, shops, grain storage and prepaid expenses, often in response to strong tax incentives.

In 2012, the average farm enrolled in the North Dakota farm business management education program spent $190,000 on equipment and buildings, compared with $44,000 in 2006. Therefore, although substantial crop inventories and deferred grain sales turned into cash this year, there may be less eagerness to bid land values higher, assuming future profit prospects are dimmer, compared with the series of strong profit years of 2007 through 2012.

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