What Percentage of Cropland Acres Are Absentee Owned?

February 15, 2018

According to the USDA’s 2014 Tenure, Ownership, and Transition of Agricultural Land (TOTAL) Survey, 39% of the 916M agricultural acres in the U.S. are rented. And a good portion of those rented acres are owned by individuals or partnerships who do not directly farm the land. There is speculation that absentee owners, cropland owners who don’t live on the farm they own, are a growing segment of the owner population. A few factors are driving this trend:

  • Growing interest in cropland as an investment – Institutional investors, including pension funds, private equity, and endowments have turned to cropland as an attractive asset class.
  • Consolidation in farm operations – According to the Census of Agriculture, the percentage of cropland acres operated by farms over 2,000 acres grew from 34% in 2002 to 42% in 2012. This growing segment of large farms are choosing to expand their operations through rental versus ownership.
  • Generational transition of ownership without transition of the operation – According to the TOTAL study, 64% of cropland owners’ owned acres were transferred inter-family. As the next generation inherits the land but doesn’t return to the farm to take over operating it, the absentee owner population grows.

But exactly what proportion of cropland acres today are managed by distant or “absentee” owners? The AcreValue data science team answered this question by analyzing our rich proprietary dataset of millions of cropland parcels in the lower 48 states, with a focus on those acres growing crops (we use NASS’s Cropland Data Layer to determine whether a parcel is cropland).
In addition to observing the exact boundaries and location of cropland parcels, our data includes the names and addresses of each parcel owner, sourced from CoreLogic, a property data and analytics company. This is a uniquely rich dataset — to our knowledge, we are the only team with access to a nationwide dataset linking detailed parcel-level data with ownership information. By comparing the location of a cropland parcel to its owner’s address, we are able to calculate the distance from the parcel to its owner. To keep things simple, we calculate distances “as the crow flies”. We ran this calculation for each of the millions of cropland parcels in our dataset.
Nationally — excluding Alaska, Hawaii, and any counties without data coverage — we find that 13.4% of cropland acres have owners located more than 100 miles away, while 9.1% of cropland acres have owners more than 200 miles away. For comparison, 200 miles is roughly the distance from Iowa City, IA, to Chicago, IL. Interestingly, the rate of absentee ownership varies considerably by geography: in some counties it is much higher than the national average, while in other counties the absentee ownership rate is close to zero. The maps below show the percentage of cropland acres with distant owners, by county, using either 100 miles or 200 miles as the threshold for an owner to be “distant” from his or her cropland.
absentee ownership
Source: , NASS Cropland Data Layer
Several counties in northern Iowa have high rates of absentee ownership, as seen in this zoomed version of the map:
absentee ownership
Here is the national map again, this time using 200 miles from land to owner as the threshold for absentee ownership:
ownership absentee
Which counties have the highest rates of absentee ownership? The table below shows the top 10 counties for distant ownership, limiting to counties with significant cropland acreage and using 100 miles as the threshold for distant ownership.

The top absentee ownership counties are spread across the country: there are several top counties in California, Iowa, and Texas. Kings County, in California’s central valley, is an interesting case: San Francisco and Los Angeles are both above 100 miles but generally below 200 miles from Kings County (although some cropland in the northern part of Kings County is slightly more than 200 miles from the southern parts of LA). Since large amounts of Kings County cropland is owned by people living in SF and LA, the absentee ownership rate is high using a 100 mile threshold, and much lower using a 200 mile threshold. The situation in Tulare County, CA, is similar.
As ownership information changes over time, we will be keeping an eye on how these trends evolve, though we expect the rate of change to be slow. In the meantime, if you’re interested in taking a deeper look at our parcel and ownership data, please visit acrevalue.com.

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