Farmers were the first entrepreneurs. About 10,000 years ago, in Phoenicia and Mesopotamia, humankind started to cultivate crops and converted from hunter-gatherers to settlers. This initiative enabled cities and, indeed, civilisation to flourish.
Since then, agriculture has developed into a modern industry. But it remains dominated by family concerns, headed by rural entrepreneurs focused on the same core issues as their ancient predecessors: land, water, weather, disease, soil and yields.
Traditionally, farms were passed down the generations, offering modest but volatile cash returns and the possibility of long-term capital appreciation – at least, for those who were not tenant farmers. But while more than 90 per cent of farms in countries such as Britain and the US remain privately held, big business has become seriously interested in the sector.
The soft commodities boom of recent years means that many institutions now see farmland as an attractive asset class and an offset against inflation. Hedge funds, private equity, pension and insurance groups are all investing in land in places such as Brazil, Ukraine and Africa. This weight of capital, as well as better farm incomes, has helped drive farmland prices up. Meanwhile, demand among these investors for agricultural opportunities in mature economies such as the US, Australia and Canada has also increased.