What about government program payments? Under the 2008 farm bill, a landlord who rents on crop shares must also “materially participate” in the farming operation to qualify for government program payments. 

Other requirements also apply. Check with the Farm Service Agency when exploring that option. Moreover, farm program payments are capitalized into the value of farmland, so expect to pay more for that land.

Also, bear in mind that farmland value will vary depending on soil type, fertility, location, topography, history of crop production and other factors. All of these factors need to be carefully considered.

Yes, farmland is hot right now. Demand is high. Institutional investors such as MetLife have jumped into it.

All of this seems lucrative at the moment, but what happens if commodity prices decline precipitously as they did in the 1980s? What happens when institution investors conclude that farmland is no longer as hot an investment? This could be a train wreck in the making.

Commodity Ownership

Commodity ownership as a crop-share rent landlord is not a bad strategy, providing one is aware of historically volatile markets and production risks.

There are no guarantees that prices will go up or stay up or even that a crop will be produced. Bad weather can result in zero crop and significant livestock death, though some of this risk is mitigated through crop insurance.

What about marketing? Be aware that it’s possible to lose a great deal in the futures market — the reason why novices should shy away from futures. Purchasing puts and calls or hedging physically owned commodities are less risky.

Writing options can be disastrous if you don’t know what you’re doing, and even if you do, it’s still considered extremely risky.  Some futures investors have experienced financial ruin.

Farming

Farming is risky business. The capital investment to get into farming is huge. A 1,000-acre cotton farm operation may require equipment purchases exceeding a million dollars. This doesn’t include additional purchases for plants, fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides and fuel, to name only a few.

All things considered the costs to operate a 1,000 acre cotton farm may run as high as $2.5 million.

Spiking oil prices have only added to these costs.

After all this, if you’re still interested in farmland as an investment, consider talking to someone who’s farmed for a long time, preferably someone who successfully weathered the farm crisis.

Yes, farming can be a profitable and satisfying lifestyle, but as any experienced farmer will attest, it’s not all peaches and cream.

It’s great — and profitable and satisfying — if you’ve got a crop to sell. If you don’t, well, just remember that the bills won’t stop coming.

 (James L. Novak is an Alabama Cooperative Extension System economist and Auburn University professor of agricultural economics.)