Freaking Out Over Farms

By Travis Johnson, Stock Gumshoe, February 11, 2011

Agriculture is yet again a big story in the markets — we’re told not only that food inflation is a big part of the unrest that toppled Tunisia’s government, may be part of what’s bringing down Mubarak in Egypt, and is certainly a major part of the inflation that’s hitting China and other emerging markets, but also that the cycles of drought and flood and other disasters, the growing population and our increasing demand for food, and the continued preoccupation with biofuels will undoubtedly keep driving the so-called “soft” commodities higher in the years ahead. And if you look at booming parts of the country right now, they’re almost all benefitting from great corn and wheat prices, or from oil (or, for North Dakota, both).

And we can add to that the “end of the world” scenarios spun by folks like Porter Stansberry, who goes so far as to tell us that we ought to be buying our own farmland to protect our family, and Jim Rogers telling students that getting an MBA is a terrible mistake: they should buy a tractor and some land and learn to farm in the Midwest. I can’t say that I’m getting ready to knock down the trees here on Gumshoe Mountain and buy a combine, but certainly the general level of chatter over agricultural investments is as high now as I’ve seen since the market crash a few years ago. So what to do?

Well, one of the things I like to mull over as an investing theme (and I certainly didn’t invent this) is the idea that developing countries will see their industries build and grow along the same lines as the more developed countries, sometimes leapfrogging a step or two. Some people call this the “what worked in America” strategy, trying to see how the last 70 years in the US might be mimicked, in an accelerated fashion, in other parts of the world.

For farming and agriculture, that means the death of the small family farm — or as it’s called in the developing world, the “subsistence farm.” Though probably bad for rural communities in the US for much of the past 50 years, as unemployment can increase and local suppliers get hurt as farms grow, and sometimes bad for small farmers (remember the Farm Aid concerts?), the increasing scale of “corporate” agriculture is almost certainly ...

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