WITH farmland values continuing to rise in recent years, large-scale investment funds have increasingly taken an active interest in farmland as part of their portfolios.
TIAA-CREF, one of the largest financial services and retirement investment funds in the country, announced that it will launch a research center dedicated to "sustainable farmland investments" at the University of Illinois.
According to the fund, the TIAA-CREF Center for Farmland Research will enhance the university's research and educational initiatives for its students and the agricultural community, conducting research and hosting academic symposiums focused on farmland prices and the financial aspects of farm management.
Backed by a reportedly $5 million pledge, the center will exist as a specialized academic unit within the university's College of Agricultural, Consumer & Environmental Sciences (ACES). An advisory board composed of TIAA-CREF and university representatives will guide the program.
Heather Davis, head of TIAA-CREF's global private fixed income and equity investments, said the center will generate the "more sophisticated research" necessary to drive long-term, sustainable investment practices among farmers, businesses and institutional investors.
"Sustainable practices help ensure that farmers increase productivity to meet rising demand for food around the world while maximizing land values over the long term," she said.
The organization is a founding member of the Principles for Responsible Investment in Farmland, a group of international institutional investors committed to sustainable investment practices in the sector.
Through its various investment vehicles, TIAA-CREF owns or manages roughly $4 billion in high-quality farmland -- including more than 600 properties totaling more than 1 million acres -- in the major grain-producing regions of the U.S., Australia, South America and Eastern Europe. Last spring, the firm launched a $2 billion farmland investment fund in partnership with several other major international institutional investors (Feedstuffs, May 21, 2012).
In 2010, TIAA-CREF acquired a majority interest in Westchester, a farmland asset management firm headquartered in Champaign, Ill. Westchester manages more than 400 farmland assets in major grain-producing regions.
For the university, the new farmland research center further enhances the mission of research and extension by providing additional resources focused on sustainable farmland investment and management. The unit will also support FarmDoc, the university's online agricultural research program.
"Farmers, educators and investors rely upon the University of Illinois for leading-edge agricultural research," ACES dean Robert J. Hauser said. "The TIAA-CREF Center for Farmland Research will help us create the tools needed to promote sustainable and innovative agriculture practices and maintain our status as the premier source for farmland research."