Why invest in agriculture?

The term 'investing' evokes abstractions, such as stocks and bonds, in modern-day minds but agriculture—perhaps mankind’s oldest investment opportunity—remains one of the most compelling opportunities available today.

For illustrative purposes only.

A growing appetite for agricultural investment

Alongside real estate, infrastructure, and timber investments, agriculture is classed as a real asset that, unlike financial assets, holds inherent physical value. As private market strategies that aren’t traded on public exchanges, their relative illiquidity, together with greater market inefficiency, can combine diversification advantages with higher-income opportunities at lower volatility.

Agriculture investment has a track record of attractive returns and is generally uncorrelated to financial assets, such as equities and fixed income, particularly when diversified across commodity types, geographies, and management approaches. 

U.S. farmland correlations (1995-2019)

Source: Morningstar, Macrobond, NCREIF, Hancock Natural Resource Group research, December 2019. Data for Farmland refer to the NCREIF Farmland Index as of 12/31/19. Data for Commercial Real Estate refer to the NCREIF Property Index as of 12/31/19. Data for Small Cap Equities refer to the Ibbotson series IA SBBI U.S. Small Stock TR USD as of 12/31/19. Data for Non U.S. Equities refer to the MSCI/EAFE International Equities Index as of 12/31/19. Data for Corporate Bonds refer to the Ibbotson series IA SBBI U.S. LT Corp TR USD as of 12/31/19. Data for U.S. Treasury Bills refer to the Ibbotson series IA SBBI U.S. 30 Day Tbill TR USD as of 12/31/19. Data for the CPI refer to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as of 12/31/19. The S&P 500 series is from Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC as of 12/31/19.

Institutional investors have been quick to identify these benefits—a recent study estimates that 49% of insurers and 37% of pension funds expect to increase their allocation to real assets investment strategies. Cashflow matching for future known liaibilities is cited as the primary motive.1

The potential opportunity

On the macro level, global population growth and changing diets in developing countries are significantly increasing the demand for agricultural commodities and value-added food products, while the ability to bring additional productive farmland into production appears limited. As the globalization of the agricultural industry continues, major agricultural producing regions stand to benefit. With these solid fundamentals, we believe that farmland is an asset class with attractive attributes for institutional investors.

Constructing a farmland portfolio with core and core-plus assets

Investment returns on farmland come from two sources: income from leasing and operating farmland, and appreciation of land and improvements such as trees, vines, irrigation systems, and buildings.

Core agricultural assets

Through core agriculture strategies, investors can gain exposure to tangible assets that are planted, harvested, and sold as sustainable food or fiber. 

Annual row crops—primarily bulk commodity crops traded in global markets, including corn, soybeans, cotton, wheat, and rice, as well as some specialty crops such as potatoes and vegetables.        

Permanent crops—higher-value crops that involve a long-term asset such as a tree or vine (e.g., nut crops, tree fruit, cranberries, grapes). Further processing (roasted almonds, shelled pistachios, wine) adds value. Direct operation by skilled property managers ensures that proper care is taken of the long-term asset during the developmental period and beyond.

For illustrative purposes only.

Both permanent and row crop farmland returns can also be enhanced through alternative sources of income such as cell tower leases, solar and wind development, conservation easement sales, and higher and better use property sales. The nascent agricultural carbon credit industry that mitigates against the harmful effects of greenhouse gas emissions also shows promise as a source of additional investor income. 

Core-plus agricultural assets

Core-plus investment strateges integrate processing operations to expand their investable universe and seek enhanced risk-adjusted returns beyond the crops themselves. Core-plus mandates may include value chain integration focused on the production, processing, storage, packaging, and marketing of agricultural commodities. 

Institutional investors are able to construct portfolios spanning an array of crop types, geographic regions, and management styles in line with their investment policy statements.

Agriculture investment strategy: global diversification by crop type and operating structure can create value and optimize returns for investors


  1. Annual row crops

    May include corn, soybeans, cotton, wheat, rice, vegetables

  2. Perennial Permanent crops

    May include tree nuts (almonds, walnuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, pecans), cranberries, apples, citrus, blueberries

  3. “Plus” investments

    May include vertically integrated permanent crop operations or indoor grow spaces

For illustrative purposes only.

As with all other forms of investment, agriculture investing comes with its own distinctive set of risks. Diversification is key to addressing these risks.

Given the lack of correlation among crop and commodity performance, crop and end-product diversification can reduce the impact of individual commodity price-cycle risk, while geographic diversification can mitigate localized weather risk.


Mitigation Strategy

Agricultural commodity price volatility

Portfolio diversification, active management

Lowered harvest volumes (due to fire, disease, pests)

Modern farming techniques, species, and crop type diversification

Property value and liquidity

Disciplined underwriting, comprehensive due diligence

Water availability

Extensive due diligence on water quality and quantity, access to surface and subsurface water, asset selection, geographic diversification


Diversification, modern farming techniques and technology

Credit default/leave collection

Extensive tenant due diligence, required rental prepayment, letters of credit

No investment strategy or risk management technique can eliminate risk or guarantee returns in any market environment. 

The obligation: a green revolution

One of the greatest challenges of the age is ensuring food security for a rapidly growing global population while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preventing deforestation in favor of agricultural land.

Governments, investors, and agricultural technologies are all required to work collaboratively to meet the demands of the future. The agriculture industry has traditionally been slow to innovate but new advances in agricultural technology—from vertical farming to data science to farm drones—are introducing exciting and disruptive methods of increasing farmland yields without placing further strain on land and water resources. 

For illustrative purposes only.

Agriculture remains the world’s oldest and most vital of industries. Once among the least digitally mature, it finds itself firmly at the forefront of a digital transformation as it responds to the urgent need to increase food production by 70%, to feed an estimated near 10 billion global population by 2050.2 Moreover, this growth must be achieved sustainably.  

We're proud to play our part: As a responsible steward of farmland, and a producer of sustainable food and fiber, we're committed to conducting our business in a way that improves our environment, nourishes our communities, empowers our people, and delivers performance for our clients. 

1 Aviva Investors’ Real Assets Study 2020. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2017.

A widespread health crisis such as a global pandemic could cause substantial market volatility, exchange-trading suspensions and closures, and affect portfolio performance. For example, the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has resulted in significant disruptions to global business activity. The impact of a health crisis and other epidemics and pandemics that may arise in the future, could affect the global economy in ways that cannot necessarily be foreseen at the present time. A health crisis may exacerbate other pre-existing political, social and economic risks. Any such impact could adversely affect the portfolio’s performance, resulting in losses to your investment.

Investing involves risks, including the potential loss of principal. Financial markets are volatile and can fluctuate significantly in response to company, industry, political, regulatory, market, or economic developments.  These risks are magnified for investments made in emerging markets. Currency risk is the risk that fluctuations in exchange rates may adversely affect the value of a portfolio’s investments.

The information provided does not take into account the suitability, investment objectives, financial situation, or particular needs of any specific person. You should consider the suitability of any type of investment for your circumstances and, if necessary, seek professional advice.

This material, intended for the exclusive use by the recipients who are allowed to receive this document under the applicable laws and regulations of the relevant jurisdictions, was produced by, and the opinions expressed are those of, Manulife Investment Management as of the date of this publication, and are subject to change based on market and other conditions. The information and/or analysis contained in this material has been compiled or arrived at from sources believed to be reliable, but Manulife Investment Management does not make any representation as to their accuracy, correctness, usefulness, or completeness and does not accept liability for any loss arising from the use of the information and/or analysis contained. The information in this material may contain projections or other forward-looking statements regarding future events, targets, management discipline, or other expectations, and is only current as of the date indicated. The information in this document, including statements concerning financial market trends, are based on current market conditions, which will fluctuate and may be superseded by subsequent market events or for other reasons. Manulife Investment Management disclaims any responsibility to update such information.

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