Calvary Lutheran in Willmar was gobsmacked when the land bequeathed the church by a bachelor farmer led to a $4.5 million windfall.
The eye-popping sum from auctioning off about 400 acres of farmland felt like a gift from above.
"It's transformative," longtime Calvary pastor Dean Johnson said a few days after the late-December auction. "It's put a little spirit in our step."
Be it a miracle or market forces at work, the sale reflects farmland values that continue rising near or above historic levels. With crop prices high and interest rates low, agricultural land is proving an irresistible draw for buyers who see it as a safe investment in a period of inflation.
"It's a classic economic answer — farmland is attractive but scarce," said Megan Roberts,who teaches agricultural business management for the University of Minnesota Extension. "People are looking for farmland right now and there's only so much to go around and that increases the prices."
That's great news for sellers like Calvary Lutheran, where the church council agreed going into the late-December auction that they'd accept a minimum average of $8,500 per tillable acre for the grain farm that longtime member Jerry Anderson donated upon his death in 2014.
Then came the auction where more than 40 active bidders drove that up to an average of more than $11,000 an acre.
"The amount of interest was just incredible," said Kristine Fladeboe Duininck who co-owns the auction company, Fladeboe Land, which handled the sale. "We could barely keep up with it."
While a strong signal of the overall health of the agricultural economy, high and rising farmland prices coupled with growing investor interest are an increasingly insurmountable barrier to young and emerging farmers who would love to own their own land but can't afford it — or even muster the capital to qualify for loans.
"I get e-mails from people who are not farmers but who have bought land and want to lease it out to our farmers," said KaZoua Berry, program manager for Marine on St. Croix-based Big River Farms, which offers land access to people of color, immigrants and others who have traditionally struggled to break into farming. "There's a lot of privilege in that — and that rubs me the wrong way," she said.
Berry and her husband grow vegetables on rented land. They'd love to buy a farm but haven't figured out how to make it work financially, she said. "With prices as they are, we've been forced to reconsider how we might ever do that," she said.
No one is sure how high farmland prices could go. Per-acre prices that were reaching $9,000 last summer have lately been pushing toward $11,000 to $12,000. That tops prices seen during the period of sustained high prices in 2013-14.
The large amount of government aid distributed to farmers in recent years is another likely factor. So is technological advancement, from better seeds to precision agriculture practices.
"What you can produce on an acre of land is so much larger than it used to be," said Joe Mahon, agricultural economist for the Federal Reserve in Minneapolis.
Both Mahon and Roberts, the extension professor, said it was hard to say if the current trajectory is sustainable or if we're in a farmland bubble. "Usually you don't know if you're in a bubble until it bursts," Roberts said.
In the meantime, community institutions see opportunity in the kind of farmland fortune that befell Calvary Lutheran.
"By giving your farm to the University of Minnesota Foundation, you can create a lasting charitable legacy for future generations, while also meeting some of your planning goals," reads a brochure from that foundation.
Ben Webster, the foundation's senior planned-giving officer, said the foundation recently finalized a deal with a retired dentist who is donating a 109-acre Freeborn County farm. The dentist is doing so under an arrangement known as "retained life estate," in which donors retain control over the land until death but receive a large income tax deduction for the donation in the meantime.
Dave Flor, who spent his career as a dentist in several southern Minnesota communities, never farmed the land he's handing over. He started buying farmland in the 1980s as an investment, and has rented it to local farmers for decades. Once the U Foundation takes ownership, it will sell the land with the proceeds earmarked for the School of Dentistry.
Flor said he bought the farm in the '80s for $55,000, and that it was recently assessed to be worth $980,000. "It's almost embarrassing to say it out loud," he said.
At Calvary Lutheran, Johnson — a former state Senate majority leader and chair of the U's Board of Regents — said the church council voted down two previous moves to sell the Anderson farm before finally voting to auction it off.
The current price of farmland was a big factor, Johnson said. Three buyers, one a local farmer and two with an investment interest, each bought a portion of the land. Anderson had stipulated that the proceeds had to go to capital costs and not the church's general fund, Johnson said, and the congregation is just embarking on a process to determine how to spend it.
"We can expand, we can remodel, we can improve," Johnson said. "And it'll all be in the name of Jerry Anderson, God rest his soul."