LOOKING OVER the sheep pasture at Fern Road Farm in the rolling hills outside Corvallis, Jason Bradford stands on a tractor bed and plugs numbers into his iPhone. The 42-year-old is calculating meat production per acre, part of a venture that unites Oregon’s bucolic countryside with 21st-century notions of responsible capitalism.
In 2009, Bradford and partner Craig Wichner created Farmland LP, a private-equity investment firm that buys conventional farmland and converts it to certified organic cultivation. The first target: 254 Oregon acres purchased with $2.2 million of Farmland investors’ money. “There are probably 20 factors to determine where we buy,” says Wichner, also 42, who runs Farmland’s San Francisco headquarters while Bradford oversees its Corvallis land. “Besides wonderful climate and soils, Oregon has people smart enough to want locally grown organic food.”
Small farms may seem a sleepy destination for venture capital. The Farmland duo believe they can offer backers both solid returns and a new way to invest. Between 1990 and 2010, US organic sales went from $1 billion to $26.7 billion annually. “Triple bottom line” (financial, social, environmental) business ethics also lure investors. “There’s a gigantic lack of opportunity to do responsible things,” Wichner says. “You have to choose between making an investment, or a difference. Farmland is a rare company where you get both.”
After buying land, Farmland leases acreage to contract farmers, aiming for “synergy” between growers with different specialties. The approach can be complicated; when Bradford visits the Fern Road vegetable plot, farmer Craig Thomas informs him that sheep (managed by a different farmer) invaded his plants earlier in the week.
Bradford and Wichner hope to buy up 2,000 Oregon acres before expanding to other states. “No one else is really doing this,” Wichner says. “The market data are there. Once we prove the finances, there’ll be copycats.”