For 16 years, Steve Bruere, President of Peoples Company, has brought in some of the biggest names in agriculture, real estate, public policy, research, finance, politics, and entertainment – including T. Boone Pickens, Martha Stewart, and Donald Trump – to take part in Peoples Company's annual Land Investment Expo in Des Moines, Iowa.
The event takes place in January. And January in Iowa often can deliver the punishing brunt of a Midwest winter. But for those 16 years, the weather never turned as intense on the Expo’s day-long event as it did in 2024. Sure, there have been flurries or cold temperatures over those 16 years. But the 17th annual Expo this year brought a challenge like never before: 11 inches of snow.
“It was a little stressful year,” Bruere told American Farmland Owner. “Lot of guests flying from out of town. We were nervous about it.”
A few hundred couldn’t make it to the Expo because either air or road travel wouldn’t allow it. That’s where one of the few benefits of previously enduring the COVID-19 global pandemic helped: virtual participation. Event organizers began a virtual component to the Expo when the pandemic limited travel and have maintained the option ever since.
That option offered a last-minute opportunity for those who had to change plans because of the snow. “I think we served over 650 lunches,” Bruere said praising the committed who made it to the Expo by either arriving before the snowstorm or despite it. “I think we had 800 folks watching the Expo virtually, so we pulled it off.”
One person not fazed by the weather was Drew Bledsoe, a former Pro Bowl National Football League quarterback who starred with the New England Patriots, which meant that he endured snowy Boston for nine seasons.
After he retired from football, Bledsoe opened Doubleback Winery in his hometown of Walla Walla, Washington. And it was because of his success as a vintner that he served as a keynote speaker at the Expo.
RELATED: Here is a list of the 2024 Land Investment Expo speakers and an early look at the 2025 plans. Find those here.
While the weather was a challenge for the Expo in 2024, it was just one day. Challenges in 2023 for the farmland industry lasted all year long. “The appraisal volume for our firm was down in 2023. Our brokerage volume was down in 2023,” Bruere said as he looked back on what the industry experienced.
Inflation last year was about half of what it was in 2022 but still about twice as high as the decade averaged pre-COVID. Higher interest rates also persisted all year long, which made it more difficult for those who wanted to buy farmland or expand what they had but didn’t have the cash to do it without borrowing.
“You can only really control what you can control,” Bruere said of the mindset that a leader of a company must have through the period. “It doesn’t do any good to worry about those things that are out of your control. And usually when the market adjusts, that creates a new opportunity somewhere else that you maybe weren’t anticipating.”
RELATED: Follow the trends for Peoples Company land auctions in Iowa in this December report.
A positive outlook can still be threatened by angst from time to time. And the concern that interest rates that reached 8 percent would climb still higher last year was always top of mind. “You didn’t know if interest rates were going to 9, 10, 11 percent,” Bruere said.
This year should be better, Bruere hopes. “I think the consensus view right now is that they’re going to remain stable and hopefully come off a little bit,” he added as he looked forward to the year ahead and the possibility of a few interest rate cuts now that inflation has slowed considerably from a year ago.
The geographical regions of the country are experiencing different economic forces right now. “We (Peoples Company) work in about 30 states across the country. And so many things…from apples and wine grapes up in the Pacific Northwest, almonds and pistachios in California, and rice and cotton in the Mississippi Delta, and, then of course, corn and soybeans in the Midwest. And in the Midwest, prices were generally good. And yields were good. And farmers are going to make pretty good money,” Bruere said.
But inflation and higher labor costs have hit some sectors harder than others. “Some of these folks that are operating permanent crop assets like almonds and pistachios and wine grapes…those costs are going to outpace the revenue. And so there are some real challenges with some of these permanent crop areas around the country where guys are farming unprofitably. And unlike the Midwest where maybe you can throttle back on fertilizer, throttle back on genetics a little bit…when you’re managing a permanent crop asset, you have to manage it like you’re trying to squeeze every ounce of yield out of it because you don’t want to permanently damage those trees. So, yeah, there are some dislocations.”
But Bruere has faith in the farmland owners and operators. Some may transition to new crops. Some may bring in more efficient operating procedures. And others may decide to leave the industry for something else. All decisions lead to new opportunities. “That’s what’s fun about our business…is that you get to have some diversity around what you work on. And you can move around and adapt where things are maybe hot, maybe where things are a little softer and put resources into different things.”