Females at the Forefront of Farmland Investment – Meet the Women Taking the Reins at Iroquois Valley Farmland REIT

Fifteen years ago, if you looked around the agriculture sector you would see a woeful lack of women represented in nearly every role… in farming, in agribusiness, and in agriculture investment. Today, while still under-represented, women have made great strides in assuming positions of influence across the sector. We’ve seen the number of female farmers increase 7% between 2012 and 2017 (and still growing). We’ve also seen the number of women earning degrees in agriculture increase. In the agriculture investment space, anecdotally, we are seeing an increasing number of female founders and more women in leadership roles. Iroquois Valley Farmland REIT, a leader in the farmland investment space, is one of the latest to contribute to this trend with the hire of two new women in key positions: Tera Johnson as the firm’s newly announced CEO and Donna Holmes as VP of Investor relations.

One of the original vehicles dedicated to organic and regenerative farm investment, Iroquois Valley (IQVF) was founded in 2007 by former college roommates, David Miller and Dr. Stephen Rivard. The REIT raises capital from mission-aligned investors in order to support farmers, support the transition to more organic acreage, and to drive a healthier food system. The organization has raised $77 million ($56 million in REIT equity shares and $21 million in Soil Restoration Notes) from a variety of retail and accredited investors. They have invested in 100 farms, across 16 states and in 28,000 acres overall. Raising Regenerative News sat down with the two newest additions to the IQVF team to talk about what brought the women to farmland investing, IQVF’s model for success, and what it’s meant for them to be a female leaders in the space.

Raising Regenerative News (RRN): Let’s start by learning a little about each of you – neither of you grew up in agriculture investment but found your way here, none-the-less.

Tera, you come from the entrepreneur/activator side of the food system – tell us how you found your way to the investor side and why your past experience will be so valuable in your new role at IQVF?

Tera Johnson (TJ): In 2014, I started the Food Finance Institute (FFI) after selling teraswhey because I wanted to help farms, food brands, and food system enterprises raise the money they needed to grow. Since then, FFI has worked with value-added farms all over the country, helping them develop financially sustainable business models, getting them capital ready, and coaching them through the process of raising money. At FFI, we helped farms raise conventional and unconventional capital, and in the process, I’ve seen a lot of business models and financing strategies, some that have worked and some that haven’t. Some of these farms are at the cutting edge of implementing a range of regenerative practices and I understand their capital requirements. This experience, coupled with the consultant network we developed at FFI throughout the country, will be invaluable to my work at IQVF.

RRN: Donna, you have 15 years of investment management experience but organic/regenerative farmland is a new space. What attracted you to the work IQVF is doing and how will your past experience inform your work here now?

Donna Holmes (DH): During the COVID quarantine, I was cooking more (like everyone else!) and sourcing organic and local ingredients. This research intensified my desire to integrate my passion for nutritional food into my professional life. I saw a job posting for a position at Iroquois Valley and knew that it would be perfect for me. I was thrilled to join the team about three months ago. I’m working to build a larger and more diverse investor base by bringing in institutional capital and attracting more individual investors. My 15 years in investment management taught me how to build relationships. At IQVF I have an important message to spread when I’m doing so.

RRN: IQVF continues to be a leader in this space – from measuring impact and soil health, to making organic farmland investment accessible to diverse investors, to being recognized as a Best for the World B Corp – what makes your model for investing in farming so unique and successful?

TJ: IQVF is a public benefit corporation. It’s not easy to become a public benefit company, but its Founders, Dave Miller and Steve Rivard, are passionate about their commitment to making it possible for non-accredited investors to invest in organic and regenerative farms. ESG investing is becoming so popular because investors are voting with their investment dollars to change things. Last week I looked at the top 10 holdings in an ESG fund in my portfolio and discovered that the top two were Google and Microsoft. For someone like me, those are great companies but they’re not having the kind of impact I want to have with my investing dollars. IQVF is transparent and clear. When someone invests in us, they know that their investment is supporting the kind of farms we want to see across the country.

DH: First, each investment starts with a farmer. We do not buy farmland and then look for someone to farm it, but rather the reverse. We allow our farmers to farm the land as they think best, as long as they are transitioning to organic or maintaining their organic certification. Second, IQVF was formed as a REIT with our mission in mind – we are a going concern with an unlimited tenure. We are also a Public Benefit Corporation, which enables us to prioritize our impact as well as a financial return. Finally, our investors are mission aligned. They willingly commit capital for at least 5 years, because they understand that organic farming is most difficult in the early years.

RRN: In your work with investors and advisors, what have you found is driving investment into organic farms? What do you want investors who have yet to invest to know?

DH: We surveyed our investors earlier this year to try to answer this question. The number one reason people invest in IQVF is to support independent farmers. Following closely as the second and third reasons, are healthy food production and environmental improvement. Other reasons for investment in IQVF are portfolio diversification, improving rural communities and participating in the financial upside of farmland investments.

New investors should know that if they want to support the battle against climate change, increase the production of nutrient dense food and improve the rural economies, and still earn a financial return, IQVF is a perfect investment for them.

RRN: What’s next for IQVF?

TJ: With both climate change and covid upon us, we’ve all lost the luxury of time to solve our problems. We need to see more regenerative farming practices on farms with resilient business models producing nutrient dense food that’s sold through more diverse local, regional, and national channels, and we need it to happen fast. That is going to require capital, and innovations in capital sources that can accelerate the transformation we’re seeking. This is the work that IQVF is embarking on.

RRN: Women in farming, women founders, women CEOs, and women in agriculture investing – it seems like no matter where we look in our space, women have historically been a smaller proportion of the players here. But this seems to be changing and you seem to be helping buck this trend.

How has being a woman in a male-centric space shaped you and your work?

TJ: On the one hand, I started my career trained as an Agricultural Economist – a very quantitative field – and I’ve had men assume I don’t know anything about numbers. On the other, I’ve always found farmers, even very conventional ones, very accepting of the idea that women know the numbers because it’s often women who have kept the books in farm families. I think the most important thing I’ve learned is that competence matters, relationships matter, and mentorship matters. I’m at a point in my career where offering these things to the women who are coming up behind me is very important to me. I am thrilled to say that my first employee at teraswhey has now taken over the FFI.

DH: Being a woman in a male centric space is something that I have grown accustomed to. Some keys to being successful are: have confidence in yourself, make sure that your voice is heard, and become an expert in your field. Times are changing. For example, Iroquois Valley is a supporter of women with approximately 71% or our farms have women working in decision making roles. In our corporate office, 10 of the 13 full-time employees are women.

RRN: How can those within the system ensure women play an increasingly equitable role in driving our food systems forward?

TJ: One of the things we did at FFI is run an accelerator for Wisconsin food brands. In our first year, I had to push hard to make sure we had one woman-owned food company in the cohort. Last year, the majority of the companies we selected were women owned and managed. So we are making progress. But I still see women having a harder time raising money than men. I think that is an issue of access to the right people and investor networks. I also think the same forces that I don’t quite understand that cause fewer women to enter STEM fields is operative here. We need to help young girls grow up confident that they can know the numbers and become financially successful farmers and food entrepreneurs. I’m proud to say that a significant portion of IQVF farms are operated by women.

DH: I agree with Tera, that times are changing when it comes to women in traditionally male dominated industries, but that change is happening slowly. Women know that they are smart, capable, and hardworking so I believe that we need to educate the men in our industry. Exposing women to careers in food, ag and finance when they are young and raising awareness that they can have impactful careers is one way to attract more women to our field. Also using social media to advertise opportunities and showcasing women in the industry in the advertisements is another way. Finally, offering flexible working conditions. Young women appreciate flexible hours and the ability to work from home.

RRN: What are you most excited for as you embark on this new journey?

TJ: I think that the state of the planet calls all of us to do our highest and best work. For me, there is nothing more important than transforming farms from their current state into one that can mitigate climate change, build local economies, and improve human health outcomes. Having the opportunity to work with a team of capable people at IQVF to deploy more capital into this transformation is truly my highest and best work.

DH: I’m excited to grow IQVF’s impact and increase awareness about how organic, regenerative farming can improve our path forward. Being new to the team, I have learned a lot in the past three months and want to share my knowledge as broadly as possible.