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There Will Be Corn

How to profit from the coming agribusiness boom.


Illustration by Zohar Lazar  

It took 112 years, but the farmers of this country have finally gotten revenge over the greedy moneymen of Wall Street. In 1896, the greatest orator of his day, William Jennings Bryan, gave what is widely recognized as one of the best political speeches in the history of this nation, lambasting the bankers back east for ignoring the plight of farmers and caring more about the soundness of their money than about the heart and soul of America. Jennings Bryan’s closing words to a cheering throng of delegates at the Democratic convention—“You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold”—put the Great Commoner in the history books, mostly as a coda, an epitaph for what was once an agrarian-dominated society.

Until now. Suddenly, it’s the farmers who are flush, at a time when Wall Street has turned mendicant. Suddenly, those who grow corn and wheat and soy have the upper hand, and it’s all because of a simple irony: This time, the government has decided to crucify mankind upon a cross of ethanol.

Ever since Washington fell in love with this renewable form of energy, Wall Street has been trying to figure out how best to profit from what amounts to a mandate for higher crop prices. It’s so pronounced that, in what has become one of the more horrific bear markets in years, courtesy of the housing and lending debacles, agriculture has become one of the only safe havens for investors. In fact, farmers are benefiting from not just one but two factors: food and fuel.

In normal times, the farmers’ production of wheat, corn, and soy would be bid up simply because of newfound demand from places like China. Throughout history, when a population grows wealthier, you get a pronounced trend away from starch to protein, which calls for dramatically increased corn harvests to feed the cows, pigs, and chickens that produce that protein. But that’s only half the story now. The Bush administration has also mandated a fivefold increase of corn ethanol’s use in this country by 2017, at the same time that the world’s clamoring for our corn. That means as much as 50 percent of our corn will be needed to make ethanol in the next few years, dramatically increasing the price of corn, which has more than doubled from $1.95 a bushel three years ago to $5.47 last week. With farmers switching quickly to corn to benefit from federal subsidies, prices of the remaining major cash crops, soybeans and wheat, have increased from $5.42 and $3.36 a bushel to $14.69 and $11.24 a bushel over that same three-year period. Corn’s plenty has created soy and wheat scarcity, because there are only so many arable acres left in this developed country. The demand is so strong for grain that we have the lowest stocks in decades. The farmers have become the new wildcatters, planting crops everywhere they can, in a rush that feels reminiscent of our nation’s turn-of-the-century oil boom: There Will Be Corn!

In this new world, the parallels to oil and oil drilling are everywhere, and so are the profits. Despite popular myths about spendthrift farmers making do with ancient equipment and old-fashioned methods, nothing could be more wrong. To cash in on the crop boom, the farmers have engaged in spending analogous to any of history’s myriad gold rushes. They have to buy equipment and use new techniques because they can’t buy land. Unless home builders can get a government program to plow down empty houses and turn the vacated land into farms, there is no more land. So here’s how to make money off the flush farmers: Own the stocks of the companies that make the equivalent of their derricks and drill bits, their picks and their pans.

Farmers have become the new wildcatters, planting crops everywhere they can, in a rush that feels reminiscent of our nation’s turn-of-the-century oil boom.

Here you’re in luck. Agribusiness has been so starved for capital, so in the doldrums for decades, that most of the companies that service it have gone under or merged to the point that you’ve got players with little or no competition spewing gigantic, oligopolistic profits. And they’re eager to return their capital to shareholders. In fact, unlike so many other companies that are reeling from the Wall Street–caused credit crisis, the biggest problem facing these ag players is that they have too much cash; they can’t redeploy it fast enough in their own industries, so they are doling out dividends and buying back stock like mad. There are so few of them and they are so treasured for their momentum on Wall Street that their own companies compete every day with the big mutual funds for stock, propelling them to higher levels.

The first, and the most obvious and yet still dramatically undervalued, is Deere & Company, the biggest and best tractor company in the world, with sales and earnings that just blew away even the most optimistic analysts. While Deere’s up 50 percent year over year, it is down 4 percent for 2008, creating a remarkable buying opportunity for this corporation’s stock, the envy of all machinery companies (not just ag machinery makers) worldwide. I think it could go up 50 percent from here and still be too low in valuation. It’s turned into the equivalent of Schlumberger, the greatest oil-service company, with competition that’s almost nil in its field. There were dozens of large tractor companies at one time, but only Deere survived, and it is now prospering.


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