Sunday, February 26, 2017

Investing in farming

Economic inequality has always been a subject of discourse. Global inequality is worse than at any time since the 19th century.  There exists a highly unequal distribution of incomes and assets within countries and between countries. While many people enjoy longevity and good health, more than one billion people live in abject poverty, struggling for mere survival every day. The poorest of the poor face the daily life-and-death challenges of insufficient nutrition, lack of healthcare, unsafe shelter, lack of safe drinking water and sanitation. A grotesquely unequal distribution of income means millions of children run the risk of dying from easily treatable diseases. 

The workers who grow and harvest the cornucopia of fruit and veggies in the rich fields of California’s Salinas Valley live in a constant crisis of poverty, malnutrition and homelessness. Toiling in “America’s salad bowl,” they literally cannot afford to eat the fresh, nutritious edibles they produce. The valley is generating billions of dollars in sales that have enriched landowners and corporate executives and turned Salinas Valley into farm country with Silicon Valley prices. Unable to afford good food, the workers eat poorly — with 85 percent being overweight or obese and nearly 6 out of 10 diagnosed with diabetes, while many more, uninsured and unable to afford testing, go undiagnosed. Especially appalling, about one-third of elementary schoolchildren in the Salinas City district are homeless. They sleep with their families in tents, abandoned buildings, tool-sheds, chicken coops or on the ground, next to the rows of crops they tend. Allowing such abject poverty in fields of abundance is made even more shameful by the fact that our society throws 40 percent of our food into the garbage.

 Financial trusts and hedge funds are buying up these farms and converting them into investment packages for super-rich global speculators. One of these Wall Street investment schemes is called Farmland Partners. It’s run by managers trained in mergers and acquisitions as executives at the investment powerhouse Merrill Lynch. Rather than being sod-busters, Farmland Partners are tax busters, using a legalistic plow called a real estate investment trust (or REIT) to obtain enormous tax breaks to subsidize their scheme. With this special subsidy, Farmland Partners has attracted hundreds of millions of dollars from investors to buy up farms and ranches — who now own 295 agricultural properties covering 144,000 acres in 16 states including California’s Salinas Valley.

Of course, the Wall Street plow-boys don’t dirty their own soft hands by actually farming; they’ve figured out how to “work” the land without touching it — and how to harvest a sweet profit. The syndicate hires tenant farmers to do the sweaty work of plowing, planting and nurturing the crops. This tenant system produces a double-line cash flow for the faraway owners: Farmland Partners charges the tenants rent for tilling the corporate soil, then the partners harvest a sweet share of any profits from the sale of crops that the tenants produce. “It’s like gold,” says the founder of one such scheme, “but better, because there’s cash flow.” The new generation of young farmers who actually want to farm are having a hard time finding affordable land to get started. These new generation farmers can easily be outbid for good land by Wall Street speculators who have the cash flow from tenants and the subsidy from taxpayers to underwrite their financial contrivance. 

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