Good value in farmland

Property market in 2020 will depend on rain

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One of the biggest single offerings carried over unsold from 2019 is the Gunyerwarildi Station feedlot at Warialda, part of a major sell-off by Ceres Agriculture.

One of the biggest single offerings carried over unsold from 2019 is the Gunyerwarildi Station feedlot at Warialda, part of a major sell-off by Ceres Agriculture.

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Banks, season the keys to property market in 2020

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To state the bleeding obvious (as the saying goes), rain holds the key to property market trends across NSW - and indeed, eastern Australia - in 2020.

If, as the long-range weather forecasters predict, we have drought-breaking (or at least drought-easing) rains in the autumn, then the second half of the year could well see plenty of sales activity.

But in this event, agents by and large don't see any mass sell-up occurring, or a wholesale collapse of land values.

As Michael Guest of Rural Property NSW at Narrabri puts it, "Given the historical capital growth (of rural property), what's a better investment or business to be in?"

Underlying demand for quality land is expected to remain strong, and although no-one is expecting the upward trend in values of the past five years to continue, most expect values - at least for the better type of well-managed properties - to hold around present levels.

Or, as national director for valuers Herron Todd White, Tim Lane, puts it, "a consolidation year in terms of asset values would not surprise".

In the event the drought does break in 2020, much of the ensuing activity is likely to involve corporate or institutional investment.

This reflects the fact that global investors now view Australian farmland, for all its seasonal vagaries, as an important component of a portfolio, given its strong history of capital growth.

Returns on capital for well-managed rural investments typically average in the high single-digit to low double-digit level over the long term, and Australian farmland is still regarded as cheap by world standards.

An interesting example of the capital growth effect on farm profitability was provided by Chris Meares of Sydney-based Meares and Associates, citing the recent revaluing of a substantial NSW mixed farming portfolio.

Since its previous valuation in 2015, the portfolio had posted a rise in value of about 28 per cent, from $15.2 million to a current $19.4m, despite three intervening years of poor seasons.

Several "big end of town" property marketing campaigns that kicked off last year are expected to gather traction in the early part of 2020, whether or not the drought breaks.

These include the sale of more assets of the troubled Ceres Agricultural Company including the 7000-head Gunyerwarildi feedlot at Warialda, for which selling agent CBRE is understood to have an offer on the table.

As reported last week, CBRE is also engaged in marketing the property portfolio of China-based Rifa Salutary, which is terminating its five-year foray into Australian agriculture.

Rifa's two Victorian properties have already been sold, while Ashleigh Station at Gravesend is understood to be under offer and other offers are being considered for the 24,000ha Cooplacurripa in the Manning Valley and the 8613 Middlebrook at Nundle.

CBRE Agribusiness senior director, Col Medway, said demand for "institutional-grade" assets from the corporate farming sector was unlikely to diminish, even if the drought persisted.

But farmer-to-farmer sales would become more problematic, as would-be buyers' priorities changed from expansion to drought management.

Even when the drought breaks, neighbour-to-neighbour sales are expected to remain muted for some time, as farmers focus on the immediate necessities of crop plantings and restocking.

Veteran property marketer Bruce Gunning of Ray White Rural Sydney says the actions of the major banks will have a big bearing on the rural property market in 2020.

He said the banks by and large have been holding off pressuring their troubled clients to sell during the drought, aware of the public odium that would attract - especially in the wake of the Royal Commission. But once the drought was over, the amnesty would end, and banks would be less hesitant about encouraging their problem clients to sell.

At the same time, the tighter lending policies now applying in the wake of the Royal Commission would make it harder for established farmers to borrow for expansion.

As a result, the international fund managers or corporates could well find the Australian rural property market a less competitive space than in the past, and thus make further inroads.

Chris Meares also sees the banks and their lending policies as one of the key factors likely to influence land values in a post-drought 2020.

He said the chastened banks would be looking to reap satisfactory yields on loans advanced for restocking, crop planting or property purchase, and this alone would tend to take the price "spikes" out of rural markets.

Assuming an easing of the drought leads to a higher level of property listings in 2020, Mr Meares said a two-speed market was likely to emerge.

Prime farming and grazing country would remain well held, and in strong demand, with values holding firm or varying only within five per cent up or down.

But "secondary" properties, of which there was likely to be a greater supply hitting the market, could come back in value by as much as 10pc to 20pc below present values.

Landmark Harcourts' corporate rural sales manager Phil Rourke likewise considers values will be "tested" as more listings become available.

But even then, he said, values would benefit from the prevailing low interest rates, as any established farmer would find it hard to resist buying a neighbouring block, if it came up for sale.

Probably the rural property market sectors hardest hit by the drought - in terms of sales activity and demand - have been pastoral land and irrigation farms.

Landmark Harcourts' Simon McIntyre said a factor that would weigh on demand for station country coming out of the drought was the need to restock the properties, at sky-high prices.

But he said confidence would return, as pastoral country had proven in the past its "astounding" capacity to bounce back from drought and become productive.

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