It is important to embed assetized agricultural ventures in their broader regional and relational context, centering on the question of regional welfare and sustainability. The relationship between finance-gone-farming, rural welfare, and sustainability is not as straightforward as it first appears, however.
The structural imperatives and metabolic ramifications of modern money management
Despite notable differences in operational models and investment cultures, institutional investors favour productivist, scalable investments over smaller scale, and socio- ecologically more diverse production models. This can have huge ecological effects, as in the case of the Brazilian soy frontier or conventional dairy or beef farming in the United States, Aotearoa New Zealand, or Australia. Even though investors may also opt for production models with better environmental track-records (e.g., permanent crops such as nuts or apples or organic dairy), even these cases cannot escape some of the structural imperatives and metabolic ramifications of modern money management. In addition, organic production does not necessarily mean improved labour conditions. These issues all require further research.
Dashboard and boardroom farming
In all the case studies examined in this book, and also in cases studied by other scholars, investors and asset managers try to instill a new form of dashboard and boardroom farming, in which the rhythms of farms are synchronized with the rhythms of money management, via the intermediation of data-driven governance structures. Yet, as the case of Aotearoa New Zealand shows, the datafication should not be tied exclusively to the increasing influence of financial investors but is also owed to the professionalization of productivist agricultural practices in different regions of the world over the past 20 years. Even so, the use of monitoring and accounting technologies is further intensified in farming ventures transformed into financial assets, with potentially significant implications for the future of farming in such areas .
Financial investments in farming have the potential to further exacerbate rural inequalities and diminish local social cohesion owing to new spatio-spatial patterns and distantiated forms of farm ownership. For instance, it was estimated in 2017 for the United States that, within the next five years, some 92 million acres would “change hands, with much of it passing to investors rather than traditional farmers”, reinvigorating the fears that even Republican politicians voiced when the first farmland fund was proposed in 1977 by the Continental Bank of Illinois and Merrill Lynch. Similar trends are reported from Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia, where the increasing corporatization of dairy and other agricultural subsectors increasingly seems to lock out aspiring farmers. Although the country will definitely not go back to the 1890s, when “422 individuals and companies (less than 1 percent of all landowners) controlled eight million of the total twelve and a half million acres of freehold land in 1890”, land concentration has become a major concern for young Aotearoa New Zealand farmers.
Aotearoa New Zealand is also a good example of why we should be careful not to exclusively tie these trends to the increasing interest of genuine financial investors, however. Aotearoa New Zealand dairy, one of the main domains of foreign financial investments, has experienced an increasing concentration of land and a rise in land and herd prices since at least the 1980s, and farming for capital gains has been an integral part of agricultural biographies since the colonial age. With the average dairy farm size nationwide standing at 147 hectares in 2018, a young farmer in the popular farming region of Taranaki, where the average price per hectare of farmland was NZ$38,025 in the same year, would have to spend NZ$6 million for that farm. With an average cost of NZ$1,000 per cow and an average herd size of 419 in 2018, share-milking arrangements (whereby someone else would own the land and infrastructure) have become equally exclusive . In the Waikato, prices could shoot up as high as NZ$60,000 per hectare, as one farmer interviewed in 2018 reported (interestingly, the same person also estimated that about 25 percent of his own land’s value, standing at NZ$45,000 to 50,000 per hectare, was not matched by productive capacities). Foreign investors surely play only a part in this story, alongside domestic corporate farmers and family farmers, as well as wealthy migrant farmers from overseas.
To further complicate things, those who have worked their way up into farm ownership, those who come from landowning families or those who are able to subsidize farm purchases from other sources of wealth and income have often been profiteers of the contemporary land rush, since additional demand increases, or at least stabilizes, land prices (and many farmers taking on debt have speculated on that). As one farmer interviewed in 2018 put it, “We operate in a free-market economy and foreign investment is part of the package” (he also noted that local buyers would often successfully compete with foreigners for land, and, for him, the anti-foreigner stance was mostly driven by urbanites removed from the realities of rural life, as with other issues too, such as environmental concerns about dairy). In addition, the Aotearoa New Zealand case shows that it is not just foreign money that increasingly flows into farming via equity investments but local money as well. This complicates narratives in which local farmers are often presented as mere victims or bystanders to the finance-driven land rush.
In other contexts, such as Tanzania, the real inequality driver in rural communities is not the few institutional investment cases. A recent study has found that a significant driver has been well-connected and educated urbanites. With access to salaries, credit, and other forms of capital, they have been significant drivers of the expansion of the capitalist farming frontier . These actors are key to understanding new patterns of rural inequality related to resource access and ownership.
(Ouma 2020: 162-165)
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