independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Farmer with a novel way of working the land

Agri-business

Jim McCarthy
Jim McCarthy

'Buy land. They're not making it any more." Mark Twain's advice from the 1800s is still often quoted, and probably taken more seriously here in Ireland than anywhere else in the world.

How else do you explain the fact that land only changes hands in Ireland once every 550 years?

But while land prices here have increased by over 25pc in the last four years, the best performers over the last decade are located beyond our shores.

Take the US cornbelt state of Illinois for example, where farms have doubled in value in the last six years. Closer to home, Savills reckon that farms in Britain have tripled in value over the last decade.

We don't hear much hoopla about these stellar increases because land is not a widely held asset, in contrast to something like shares and commercial property.

It's possible that this could change, however, if serial farming investor Jim McCarthy's predictions come true.

Jim is an exceptionally rare form of successful Irish farmer. He was born without an acre of land. Not only that, but he's been prepared to travel to further his farming ambitions.

Jim still operates a 600ac tillage farm in Kildare. But as he admits himself, he does no more than is required to maintain his EU farm payment.

Instead, he has concentrated his energies on building farm businesses outside the EU, where farming isn't curtailed by subsidies and bureaucracy.

"European farming is being left behind," he claims. "The subsidy regime is keeping a lot of farmers on the land but it is holding the commercialisation of agriculture back. We've also been denied GM crops, which is a huge disadvantage."

McCarthy's first international farming foray was in grain farming in western Australia. He has since invested in dairying in Missouri and a 30,000ac, €41m operation in Argentina. The latter was sold two years ago to Saudi Arabia's largest food company, Almarai, for a cool €20m profit.

Since then McCarthy has kept a deliberately low profile. However, he has recently been eyeing up farmland in the Balkan region, particularly Serbia and Romania, where he is in the process of carrying out due diligence on a number of large farming businesses.

While Jim deals mainly with multi-million dollar investment houses, he also sees a future in Ireland when non-farming people will also be investing in the best performing farmers.

"Irish farming isn't at the races in lots of respects but one thing that we can do as well as anywhere else in the world is grow grass. That's why a dairy farm can generate a 5pc return if it is done right," says McCarthy.

"I think that more Irish dairy farmers should look at taking on equity partners in the form of local doctors or accountants or whatever rather than burdening themselves with extra borrowing from the bank. There's a big appetite for getting involved in the soft commodity market, and the best way to handle the volatility that is inherent in it is to go long. The best way to go long in food production is to be a producer." But he dismisses the notion that increasing populations will soon make cultivatable land an ever-increasing asset.

"Malthus's theory has been proven wrong over and over again and I think investing in land because you think there's going to be a shortage of it is not a clever move. Only recently I stood in a 40 square mile area near Vladivostok where I reckon less than 30pc of the land was being farmed.

"Yes, if you are investing over say a 50-year period, land has performed extraordinarily well, and probably will again. But the guys that were chasing farming investments because of its internal rate of return are all gone post Lehman's collapse.

"There's lots of funds out there looking to sink billions into farming investments, and they expect a minimum of a 5pc cash return, but are happy for that to be re-invested for the first three to four years. Any increase in asset value is just cream," he says.

But what about Savills' predictions of 5-6pc growth in British land values over the coming four years?

"Where I grew up in Ballycotton in east Cork, we had a saying that you would never hear of a fisherman selling rotten fish," is McCarthy's wry assessment.

Irish Independent

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