The Gazette | 12 June 2023
Who owns Iowa farmland? In many cases, it’s not farmers.
The sense Iowa’s agricultural land is both scarce and gaining value has driven the average price to a record-setting $11,400 per acre last year. Now Iowa farmers are bidding not only against neighbors, but out-of-state investors including professional athletes, well-known billionaires and the Mormon Church.
by Erin Jordan
DEWITT — Fewer than half the people at a recent farm auction in Clinton County were actual bidders. The rest came for the cookies, conversation and to see who would walk away with 150 acres of Iowa dirt.
Would it be the men in suits sitting in folding chairs by the wall?
What about the old-timer in overalls?
Or would an online buyer swoop in with the highest bid?
“Folks, you don’t want to be driving past the farm and saying ‘I wish I would have bought it’ later down the road,” said Jesse Meyer, an auctioneer for the Peoples Company. “It’ll be another 50, 60, 70 years before this farm comes back on the open market.“
The sense that Iowa’s agricultural land is both scarce and gaining in value has driven the average price to a record-setting $11,400 per acre last year. Now Iowa farmers are bidding not only against neighbors, but out-of-state investors including professional athletes, well-known billionaires and the Mormon Church.
The Gazette spent four months searching county assessor records in all 99 counties, looking at maps and talking with land agents, farmers and investor owners to get a sense of who owns Iowa farmland. Here are some of our findings:
An investing arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known to many Iowans as the Mormon Church, owns at least 22,000 acres of Iowa farm land. At the average per-acre price, that land is worth more than $250 million.
Lee County land prices have shot up as developers and investors compete for land around the Iowa Fertilizer Co. “All these big investment groups want to jump on the bandwagon,” one Lee County farmer said.
A Tennessee family has bought at least 5,000 acres of land in northwest Iowa using at least 10 different names.
Iowa is one of only 21 states in the country that prohibits foreign land ownership, but still had nearly 600,000 acres of agricultural land in 2020 owned by people from other countries.
Some investor owners, like Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, make land and water conservation a priority, while others are not involved in how their land is managed.
Despite Iowa’s farming heritage, more than half of Iowa farmland is owned by someone who doesn’t farm, according to the 2022 Farmland Tenure and Ownership survey by Iowa State University.
Nearly one-quarter of Iowa farmland owners in 2022 bought the acres as a long-term investment, ISU reported. High commodity prices have pushed up average cash rents, which further improves the investment potential.
“Iowa farmland is regarded very highly among the investors because those are the assets that don’t depreciate much,” said Wendong Zhang, an assistant professor at Cornell University who, until recently, was the lead researcher of ISU’s farmland ownership survey.
Because of these surveys, we know about Iowa landowners in general, but not by name. There’s no state database showing, for example, the top 10 largest Iowa landowners. People or companies that want to collect this information cobble together incomplete reports from county assessors, commercial websites and other sources.
“We hear about major transactions via landowners themselves, their representatives, from brokers and appraisers, and, more recently, via online county tax records,” said Eric O’Keefe, editor of The Land Report, which chronicles major land transactions and compiles an annual list of the country’s largest individual landowners.
What makes tracking land ownership even harder is some buyers don’t use their real names, instead buying under subsidiaries or shell companies. This secrecy hinders landowners from contacting neighbors and public officials struggle to make sure land isn’t being purchased illegally.
Mormon Church purchases go back to 1980s
The Deseret Trust, an auxiliary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has owned Iowa farmland since at least 1982, a Gazette review shows. Since then, the trust has purchased at least 22,450 acres of Iowa farmland in 21 Iowa counties.
Buchanan County has the largest amount of land owned by the trust at 3,240 acres, followed by Webster at 3,106 and Benton at 2,091. The most recent sale tracked by The Gazette was on Feb. 15, when the trust bought about 160 acres in Tama County for $2.1 million, an average price of more than $13,000 per acre.The Utah-based church owned at least 1.7 million acres of land valued at nearly $16 billion across the United States in 2020, according to an analysis by the Truth & Transparency Foundation, a now-defunct nonprofit newsroom focused on religious accountability.
This land includes church grounds, apartment buildings, shopping complexes and agricultural land, according to a 2022 article in the Salt Lake Tribune. These holdings make the church one of the nation’s top private landowners, the Tribune reports.
One reason the church is able to buy so much land is an expectation members give 10 percent of their income to the church. After paying church bills, there is significant income left for investments, according to a former senior portfolio manager for Ensign Peak Advisors, another investment arm of the LDS church, who recently was interviewed by 60 Minutes.
The Deseret Trust declined The Gazette’s request for an interview about its agricultural land buys in Iowa, but provided a statement:
“We see farmland as a stable long-term investment,” Dale K. Bills, a spokesman for the trust, said in an email. “The land owned in Iowa is leased to and worked by local farmers. Because we want our farmland to be just as productive a hundred years from now as it is today, we encourage our tenants to employ sustainable best practices in tillage and nutrient management to maintain productivity and protect water resources.”
Lee County land prices skyrocket
The Deseret Trust spent $23 million last November to buy about 1,800 acres of Lee County farmland. The church bought about 50 parcels near Wever, just south of the Iowa Fertilizer Co., a $3 billion fertilizer plant that employs 265 people full time and is owned by multinational firm OCI NV.
Steve Menke, who farms nearby, said he and other neighbors didn’t have an option to buy the land because it was sold without a public auction.
“You don’t get a chance,” he said.
“That farm is all big fields, a half-section, quarter section,” Menke added. “The farmers that lease it from the Mormon church come in there with two 36-row corn planters and plant it in two or three days and then they are gone. Investors want big contiguous tracts of land.”
About 1,100 of those acres sold for an average price of about $11,800 per acre — above the state average and several thousand dollars per acre higher than the same parcels sold for in 2017.
“Have we have seen a lot of large increases in the price of ag ground? Absolutely.” said Stacie Dickens, chief deputy assessor for Lee County.
Menke said he recently was offered $40,000 an acre for 80 acres near the fertilizer plant. He doesn’t want to sell that land because it’s the family farm where he worked with his father and grandfather. But he’s considering selling another parcel to a developer who wants to build a hydrogen plant. Hydrogen is a primary ingredient in fertilizer.
Alliant Energy also is building a 150-watt solar farm north of the fertilizer plant.
Pro athletes and tech giants own Iowa land
In January, there was big news about the purchase of a relatively small Iowa farm.
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and about 20 other professional athletes bought a 104-acre farm in an undisclosed northern Iowa county. The land was purchased from a $5 million fund for agricultural investments, according to Patricof Co., a private investment platform that facilitated the buy, Front Office Sports reported.
When The Gazette emailed Patricof to find out whether the athletes would be involved in decision making on their farm, Megan Hackworth, of public relations firm BerlinRosen, emailed back: “The athletes aren’t involved in the day-to-day operations of the farm, so unfortunately I don’t think we’d be able to provide much context on the conservation practices.”
If Patricof hadn’t announced the purchase, the public likely would never have known about it. The Gazette searched county assessor records for “Patricof” as well as a half dozen professional athlete names included in news reports, but none showed up, indicating they used an LLC or other name.
Investment firms linked to Bill and Melinda Gates own more than 552 acres of Iowa farmland, according to a 2021 profile in The Land Report. That’s just a sliver of the 242,000 acres of farmland the Gateses or their subsidiaries own across the country, O’Keefe reported.
Cascade Investments LLC, one entity that owns the Gateses’ land, has joined Leading Harvest, a group that wants to set a sustainability standard for American farm and ranch lands, O’Keefe reported.
Tennessee investors buy prime Iowa land under multiple names
How did a Tennessee family that owns citrus farms in Florida, vineyards in California and a whole town in Arkansas come to start buying northwest Iowa farmland a few years ago?
That’s what Helen Gunderson wondered.
“Our family story has been a lot about accumulating land since the late 1800s,” Gunderson, 78, of Ames, told The Gazette.
Gunderson and her five siblings each inherited farmland in Pocahontas County. She rents land to an organic farmer who limits tilling to reduce topsoil loss and fertilizer runoff. Gunderson, a retired teacher and sports administrator, heard last year about the Lawrence Group buying land in Pocahontas County.
Gaylon Lawrence Jr.’s holdings in 2016 included “more than 165,000 acres of farmland in Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Mississippi; five banks; the world’s largest privately owned air conditioning distributor, USAir Conditioning Distributor; and a major citrus operation in Florida,” according to the New York Times.
Lawrence in 2010 bought one of the largest agricultural tracts in the delta cotton country of Arkansas, the Times reported. Along with that land came the town of Wilson, population 900 in 2016. The Lawrence Group has turned the town into a destination of Tudor-style homes, farm-to-table dining and unique businesses, like White’s Mercantile, owned by Holly Williams, Hank Williams’s granddaughter.
Lawrence-linked LLCs have purchased in recent years at least 5,000 agricultural acres in eight Iowa counties, according to The Gazette’s review of Gunderson’s records.
Gunderson found at least 10 entities, most containing the word “Delta,” that had the same address in Wilson. That address, 1 Park Ave., is owned by Wilson City Partners, whose parent company is the Lawrence Group, according to an online recruitment profile for a new CEO.
The Gazette called the Lawrence Group last month and asked whether the family had any plans for Iowa similar to what they did in Wilson.
“It’s kind of just been looked at more of a farmland investment at the moment,” a representative said. He said he would leave a message for the Lawrences, who work in the Wilson office every week, but The Gazette did not get a return call.
Like some other out-of-state investors, the Lawrence Group has an Iowa tie. Lawrence’s father, Gaylon Lawrence Sr., graduated from Iowa State University in 1955 with a degree in agriculture and economics, according to his 2012 obituary.
Foreign land ownership in U.S. a ‘national security issue’
Iowa law prohibits foreign people, businesses or governments from acquiring agricultural land. But for the same reasons it’s hard to track land buys by Bill Gates or Joe Burrow, foreign land ownership also can go under the radar.
Iowa had about 600,000 acres of agricultural land under foreign ownership in 2020, according to an analysis performed for the Iowa Farm Bureau. Some or all of these acres could be owned legally under exemptions to the law that include:
Ownership before 1980
Used for agricultural research
Inherited or acquired through legal proceeding, will be divested within two years
Land found to be owned by non-residents can be reclaimed by the state. The Secretary of State’s Office did not reply to Gazette requests to know whether this had happened in recent years.
More than half of U.S. states have no law prohibiting foreign land ownership and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, charged with documenting foreign ownership, hasn’t always been vigilant, said U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson, a Republican from Marion.
“We learned, for instance the USDA wasn’t assessing penalties for foreign entities that were buying ag land,” Hinson told The Gazette. “We need to be doing everything we can to prevent our adversaries, like the CCP (Chinese Communist Party), from buying another acre of American farm land. This is a national security issue.”
Hinson has supported three bills to prevent some countries from buying any U.S. land and to strengthen oversight of foreign land purchases overall. She also thinks more states should adopt laws like Iowa’s.
Home on the range
When the final gavel fell at the land auction in DeWitt, the winning bidders weren’t out-of-state investors. They were a local father and son, who accepted congratulatory handshakes from their neighbors.
Richard Skiff, 70, of rural Clinton County, bought the first tract at $8,800 an acre and his son, Eric Skiff, 45, bought the second at $7,650 an acre.
“We’ve been looking and everything else was too high,” Richard Skiff said. He’s glad a local got the land. “We know how to farm it.”