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Fund braves weather setbacks to snap up Australian farms

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If it isn't too wet, or too windy, it's too dry.

There in one good reason not to invest in Australia - weather - as this season has amply demonstrated.

Queensland's cotton and sugar farmers have braved floods and 180mph winds, while grain growers have suffered either too much rain on the east of the country, or too little in the west.

Still, that does not make the country a no-hoper for agricultural investment, says John Paul Thwaytes, a former UK futures, foreign exchange and fixed income trading boss, now getting into agricultural investment.

In fact, positively spun, Australia's woes this season could prove good timing for the JPT Capital fund he is setting up to buy and run wheat farms in the southern hemisphere's top exporter of the grain, and which is being prepared for imminent flotation.

"We had reckoned on having two poor years" out of the eight or so the fund was initially set up to last," Mr Thwaytes tells Agrimoney.com.

"Hopefully, this was one of them."

'Not a war zone'

Nor, indeed, do the weather setbacks detract from the other attributes of being in Australia, in JPT's eyes, including an "advanced and reliable" legal system, and a stable economy and governance too.

As the fund puts it: "Australia is not a war zone, it is not under threat of invasion, military coup or civil unrest." (Mind you, similar might have been said about much of North Africa until this year.)

Australia also ticks the JPT box for its certainty of export rules - unlike, say, Argentina or Russia, as championed by other farm investors – and its advanced property rights.

Better than Brazil?

And - in what appears a slight at Brazil, very much a top destination for foreign farm investors - Australia's agricultural area is already defined and exploited.

"The country does not have millions of acres of rainforest available to clear for new arable farmland," the fund says.

As such, with supply fixed, "the existing farmland is a valuable commodity", and has roughly doubled in price over the last decade in Western Australia, typically Australia's top wheat-growing state, which JPT is targeting for its investment.

"We want to be in Western Australia because we want to grow wheat rather than a fashionable crop, like jatropha", which could become less fashionable in the future.

Bigger potential

Not that this price appreciation has put the state out of JPT's reach.

"There is a huge price differential. Here a hectare of arable land costs £14,000. There, a hectare is £1,200."

The fund, which has raised some £10m, has already brought six farms, covering some 15,000 hectares, and has plans for potentially 30 when it has raised the £50m it is targeting.

"There is potential out there for far more, for £150m-160m. But we started with a £50m target to get ourselves bedded in, rather than go in at a higher level and run the risk of upsetting the pricing" in the Western Australia market.

Paper vs land

Besides, Mr Thwaytes actually sees price appreciation as one of the attractions of the fund.

After selling out of his former business ODL Securities, he was seeking something "asset backed"

"After the turmoil, buying paper was not the right thing to do. I wanted something that offers a yield, but has assets behind it too."

The fund's aim is to offer investors two ways of benefitting, through the uplift in land values as well as the operating profit of its farms, which will be managed by Corporate Agriculture Australia and Farm & Co.

The gains willl then be divided among investors after the fund is, according to the brochure, "wound-up after eight-10 years".

At least, in the initial plans for fund. "I am hoping this carries on for the next 20 years," Mr Thwaytes tells Agrimoney.com.

Does what it says

Investors would still be guaranteed an easy exit, however, thanks to plans to list the group, in Dublin, potentially next month.

"I want to give everyone an out if they want to get out," he says, adding that he wanted to create and invest in a fund which is fully transparent.

"I want people to be able to see that we are doing what we said we would do, and not find that we have bought a cattle farm or something."

That said, raising money is the name of the game for now, and encouraging investors to follow Mr Thwaytes, who has himself put "substantial" money into the fund.

"It is important that we in the fund have an interest in it personally," he says.

By Agrimoney.com

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