The rising cost of food can be seen even in New York's yuppiest enclaves, where prices are high to begin with. Bloomberg food critic Ryan Sutton has been running a blog called The Price Hike wherein he measures the shifting costs of food at the plate in Manhattan restaurants. Mario Batali's Del Posto is charging 21 percent more per meal since October. Gordon Ramsay at The London? Sixty-nine percent more since last month. Michelin favorite Bouley? Forty percent. The Breslin, at the Ace Hotel? Thirty-three percent. And so on.
But farmland isn't an option for most investors. Farming is still mostly made up of family-run businesses, in the U.S., at least. Much of the farmland being purchased in America is purchased at estate sales. Pure-play farming isn't a readily available product.
You can invest in John Deere for equipment; you can invest in Monsanto for seeds and agricultural tech. You can even invest in Kraft, which puts the plants on the supermarket shelf. But for now, it's difficult to invest in a one-stop-shop farm. Additionally, there isn't much arable land out there, it's not increasing, and the quality of the land varies from parcel to parcel. And to make money off a farmland investment, you can't just sit on it. You have to know what to do with it. "If you farm it like we do, you can generate a yield," says the hedge fund manager. "We think the farmland will be worth 5 to 10 percent more every year, and on top of that, you get the commodities yield." In other words, hedge funds are growing, picking and selling corn.
Asked if the American public would eventually see a chance to invest in Old McHedgeFund's farm one day, the manager replied in the affirmative: "Yes. Without a doubt." He estimated it would be only a few years before this happened. Just two weeks ago, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that El Tejar SA, the world's largest grain producer, is planning on selling $300 million of bonds this year before a planned IPO. The plans for the IPO will be fast-tracked pending the sale of the bonds. If farming IPOs begin to emerge en masse, then farming-already often a dicey proposition simply on the basis of its being difficult to do correctly, the volatility of the weather and the possibility of entire crops going bad-may be vulnerable to a bubble.
There is, of course, a slightly more sinister reason to develop a sudden interest in agriculture. Last year, Marc Faber recommended to anyone: "Stock up on a farm in northern Norway and learn to drive a tractor." He sees a "dirty war" on the horizon, playing on fears of a biological attack poisoning food supplies. Those sort of fears drive capital into everything from gold (recently at an all-time high and a long-time safe haven for investors with currency concerns) to survivalist accoutrements. In this particular case, one might buy the farm in order to avoid buying the farm.
That may seem extreme, but even the lesser scenarios are frightening to some. When asked if this is an end-of-the-world situation, the hedge fund manager replied: "It really is. I tell my fiancée this from time to time, and I've stopped telling her this, because it's not the most pleasant thought." He pauses for a moment. "We just can't keep living the way we're living. It'll end within our lifetime. We're just going to run out of certain things. We'll just have to learn how to adjust."