If you are like most Americans, you woke up today and had breakfast. Then a little later you had lunch, and a bit after that you had dinner. You probably snacked in between, too. Yup, eating will never go out of style, which is a good reason to watch these stocks despite the commodity nature of the agriculture business: Agrium (USA) (NYSE:AGU), Deere & Company (NYSE:DE), and Monsanto Company (NYSE:MON).
Supplying the growers
Agrium is a Canadian company with operations throughout the Americas. It breaks its business down into two parts, retail stores and fertilizer. Essentially, it sells just about everything a farmer needs to grow crops. Unlike competitors, which focus heavily on just fertilizer, Agrium gives you a much more diversified exposure to the agriculture space.
That worked out really well in mid-2013 when one of the two global consortiums that sell potash broke apart in Europe. That single event sent potash prices reeling and dragged down potash producers. However, because of Agrium's more diversified portfolio, it wasn't hurt nearly as much as competitors.
That said, Agrium's earnings did fall by more than 50% between 2011-2014, as commodities around the world pulled back from their highs. But the company was still soundly in the black, earning nearly $5 a share in 2014. So, if you are looking for an agricultural supplier, this is one stock to put on your watch list.
The big green machines
Another supplier to the agriculture market worth watching is Deere & Company. Any little boy with a green toy tractor will instantly recognize this industry icon's full size machines plying the fields. It is one of the world's largest producers of agricultural mechanization equipment -- tractors and the like. It also makes earth moving and forestry equipment.
These are complex machines that are increasingly including technology to improve productivity. While they are long-lived in nature, they are constantly in demand and also involve a lot of upkeep. In fact, farmers can only put off spending on such equipment for just so long before it breaks, wears out, or newer products offer better economics. That helps explain why Deere's top line has only declined twice between 2005-2014 (in 2009 and 2014) despite extreme volatility in the commodity end markets where its equipment gets used.
Moreover, the company has a long history of rewarding shareholders with annual dividend increases. Upping the disbursement in each of the last 10 years, leading to a near quadrupling of the payment.
More than just seeds
Another major agricultural player is seed provider Monsanto. Selling seeds may not sound like big business, but it actually is. That's because Monsanto's seeds are specialized to highlight particular traits, such as drought and parasite resistance, and yield. It also makes chemicals that protect crops, as well, like Roundup weed killer
There are some issues going against Monsanto today, notably a push back against so-called genetically modified foods. Although the trend toward more natural foods is something to watch, humans were modifying crops well before Monsanto was incorporated. In fact, in order to keep up with global demand for food, some argue we'll have no choice but to embrace them. So this may not be a huge issue unless so called GMOs bother you.
The second notable issue to consider here is that Monsanto's revenues will track along with the agriculture markets its serves. It's pretty easy to see why -- if farmers don't order seeds, Monsanto's sales go down. But that's a part of the cyclical nature of the business and is simply something an investor has to deal with. Still, because we have to eat and Monsanto is a big player in the agriculture space, downturns could turn into long-term buying opportunities.
It's also worth noting that Monsanto is working hard to keep ahead of the pack. It has historically used about 10% of revenues for research and development, and has deals with major chemical companies that should help stretch its R&D dollars and industry reach. And it has massive market penetration in several key markets. Monsanto really is the 800-pound gorilla in seeds.
Helping the farmers
Although Agrium, Deere, and Monsanto aren't farmers, they all touch the agriculture industry in key ways. Essentially, the companies provide farmers the things they need to do the dirty work. If you like the farm space, these are three interesting stocks to watch in agriculture. At the very least, the trio will give you a quick overview of what's going on in the broader agriculture market.