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Farmers Have It Right

Farmers do not get enough credit. They are, by and large, some of the most successful investors.

What sets them apart? What makes them so good at investing? It all comes down to attitude.

Here’s the deal. When an average person buys or sells a stock, bond, or mutual fund, they know they are making an investment. They are sacrificing consumption today to buy an asset that will hopefully allow them to enjoy increased consumption at some point in the future.

But a funny thing happens when the average person buys a stock, bond, or mutual fund. They also recognize the asset can be sold at any time. As a result, they tend to watch the value on a frequent basis. Our capital markets help facilitate this behavior by posting daily – if not second-by-second – updates on the prices of these assets.

Because market prices are so readily available, the average investor cannot help but compare the value of their investment today versus the value of their investment yesterday, or last month, or last year. They keep tabs – sometimes written, sometimes mental.

If the price of their investment continues to rise, all is well. They are happy. If, however, the price happens to fall – an outcome not only possible but expected from time to time when investing – average investors second-guess themselves. They begin to doubt.

With market prices readily available and the ability to sell at any instant, it is tempting to avoid the pain of loss by selling their investments before “things get worse.”

All of this activity is vastly different from how the average farmer approaches investing. Granted, instead of stocks, bonds, and mutual funds, the investment of choice for farmers is land, the dirt beneath their feet.

The attitude of the average farmer is what sets them apart from the average investor. When a farmer purchases a piece of land, he or she typically views it as a long-term investment – often a life-long investment. They may never sell it.

Helping to reinforce this long-term outlook, they do not receive daily – and certainly not second-by-second – price quotes for their land. They cannot open an app or a newspaper to see how much their land increased or decreased in value over the last day, month, or year.

In truth, most farmers do not care. They have no intention of selling. They buy for keeps.

If the average investor approached his or her portfolio like an average farmer regards his or her ownership in land, the average investor would be far better off.

Consider the historical rates of returns for farmland compared to stocks and bonds. According to Kansas State University, non-irrigated farmland values in Kansas increased about 5% per year from 1972 to 2018. Add in an average net operating income of 3-4% per year, you get a total annual return of around 8-9% for owning Kansas farmland over the past 47 years.

How does that compare to stocks and bonds? A balanced portfolio of 50% U.S. stocks and 50% U.S. treasury bonds, a fairly conservative investment, would have returned just more than 9% from 1972 to today. Net of fees, it would have returned approximately 8-9% per year.

While the overall returns have been similar, I would hazard to guess the average Kansas farmer had a better chance of receiving that 8-9% return per year than the average Kansas investor during that time.

The average investor likely squandered their opportunity to earn similar returns by trying to buy and sell at the right times, hurting their performance in the end. Research demonstrates this tendency.

To become a better investor, think like farmer. Worry less about the value of your portfolio day-by-day or month-by-month, even year-by-year. Instead, consider your portfolio a life-long investment.

Buy for keeps and make changes only when your circumstances warrant it.

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