Chris Soules is an Iowa farmer, a land investment specialist with Peoples Company of Des Moines, and a reality TV personality with roles on The Bachelorette, The Bachelor, Dancing with the Stars and Worst Cooks in America. He chose to pursue a dual career in production agriculture and land acquisition, but he didn’t seek out reality TV. His sister did it for him.
“The prompt for reality TV came from my middle sister, who signed me up for The Bachelor without telling me,” Soules said. “The whole TV thing has been quite a ride. Although I didn’t get the girl which was my original intent, I’ve gotten a lot of good from it. I’ve met great people and unexpectedly been given an opportunity to shine a bright light on agriculture from a big stage.”
Agriculture is in his blood. For three generations, the Soules family has worked the deep, rich soil near Lamont in northeastern Iowa. Today, he along with his father and a business partner operate a 5,000-acre corn and soybean farm and a hog operation that finishes about 30,000 hogs per year.
“I started farming with my dad when I was just a kid,” Soules said. “By the time, I was in high school I was leasing some land on my own and continued to do that all the time I was at Iowa State. Agriculture, with its emphasis on technology and managing people, is drastically different than it used to be, but it is still the backbone of our country.”
I’m proudest of my family’s farming business and the contributions that I’ve made to helping it grow.
Obviously, agriculture can’t exist without land. Land acquisition and investment was a natural career trajectory for Soules when he returned to farm full-time in 2004 with his newly minted degrees in agronomy and agriculture studies.
“At the time, we were farming about 1,500 acres, which wasn’t a scale that provided the financial return or security that I wanted, so I got involved in land investment,” Soules said. “It just made sense. It complemented my work as a farmer and leveraged my knowledge—nobody knows farmland like a farmer.”
Working as an independent consultant, Soules completed more than $200 million in land transactions and was the driving force behind the creation and vesting of a land fund that raised $60 million of capital and eventually sold for $80 million. Last year, he combined his strengths with those of Steve Bruere and Peoples Company, a multi-faceted farm and land management group.
“In addition to land investment, Peoples Company offers appraisals, brokerage services and land management,” Soules said. “The full-service approach gives the company a competitive advantage. As part of their team, I get to see almost every land deal in the Midwest and evaluate it from a real world perspective.”
Soules’ diverse experiences allow him to bridge the knowledge gap between the farm and the corporate suite, highlighting the advantages for both.
“I run cash flows on a daily basis,” Soules said. “I know how land looks to a farmer and how it looks to a fund manager in Chicago—and can talk to both. At Peoples, I, like others on the team, am an experienced pair of boots on the ground, which gives us a definite competitive advantage.”
The real life of an Iowa farmer
Generations of farm kids have learned by doing and Soules was no exception. As a child, he worked alongside his father and his grandfather. Fields were his playground and tractors, plows and hay rakes were his playground equipment.
“I absorbed the mentality of farmers,” Soules said. “My dad put together 1,000 acres one parcel at a time. I saw exactly how big a decision every purchase was for him, what pride he took in each acquisition and what care he poured back into the land. He never let us forget the importance of making the farm better.”
In high school, Soules raised soybeans on land he leased himself, earning his State FFA Degree in soybean proficiency. When he left for Iowa State, he continued to lease land and farm on the weekends.
“My dad would step into the gap for me during the week and handle anything that couldn’t wait until I got home on Friday,” Soules said.
During the college years, Soules split the responsibilities and risks of farming with a college friend. They’re still business partners today.
Despite his successful stints in reality TV, Soules is a humble man. When pressed to name his greatest accomplishment, the answer isn’t really a surprise.
“I’m proudest of my family’s farming business and the contributions that I’ve made to helping it grow,” Soules said, noting the family’s farm has grown from 1,500 acres to 5,000 acres and now is home to six high-tech hog barns.
By using savvy land acquisition techniques, the family increased its land holdings and cash flow, allowing them to further diversify the business to include a thriving hog operation that finishes 30,000 pigs a year. Today, with the larger operation, they benefit by economies of scale and the addition of a partner who helps spread the risk.
In turn, the intensive livestock operation has created five full-time jobs, a side effect that benefits his hometown. Providing employment opportunities and strengthening the local economy are long-term personal goals for Soules, who noted the graduating class at the area’s consolidated school had dropped from 72 students when he graduated in 2000 to the upper 40s now.
“My dad’s class was bigger than my class and my class was bigger than those now…I’m scared to see what it looks like in the future if something doesn’t change,” Soules said. “It motivates me to bring employment opportunities back to rural Iowa and the rest of the Midwest.”
His passion for the land and the lifestyle doesn’t leave time for hobbies.
“I don’t have hobbies—I have a passion for agriculture and everything that surrounds it,” Soules said. “I’m passionate about growing our family business and about the potential for farmland. I want to continue growing our land portfolio and help others do the same.”
The real life of a land acquisition specialist
“When it comes to farmland, I spend half my time as a buyer and half my time as a seller,” Soules said. “I understand what a good land deal, good brokerage services, and good land management relationships look like from both sides of the table.”
Peoples Company’s mission is to “deliver innovative solutions to our clients with a team of cohesive land professionals focused on building lasting relationships,” which aligns with Soules’ mission.
“If two brains are better than one, then imagine the power of 20 brains working on behalf of a client?” Soules said. “We can work together to leverage our collective expertise and in the process help both experienced and inexperienced land investors develop an outstanding portfolio.”
Demographics point to major opportunities looming on the horizon for those interested in owning farmland.
“More than 50 percent of American farmland is owned by people 65 and older,” Soules said. “In the next 10 years, I see a lot of opportunities as a farmer and an investor.”
You can’t translate anything to success by wishing for it, you have to roll up your sleeves and work for it.
Soules concentrates his efforts in Iowa, Minnesota, eastern Nebraska, southern Wisconsin and central Illinois because he “has the most experience in those areas with those soil types,” which gives him “competitive advantage of knowing what I know best.” He has identified a growing trend among his clients. The majority of them are sole investors who want to own and control their own assets instead of being part of a larger pool of money.
“My typical investment clients are people who want out of the stock market because the hands-on ownership and control of the land asset appeals to them,” he said.
Unlike ranches that are often available as turnkey operations, farmland is generally sold as individual parcels through auction. Investors who are interested in amassing a full-scale farming operation must have a long-term plan and vision that is built around multiple land purchases in a 50-mile radius, but investors who are interested only in having prime farmland as part of their asset pool can pick and choose the best deals regardless of location. In both situations, the key, according to Soules, is buying the right property at the right price.
“I watched my dad negotiate for every single thing he ever bought,” Soules said. “It’s vital to know the market, buy the property for less than it’s worth or at least no more than it’s worth—and have a clear plan to make it worth more.”
Soules’ “farmer eyes” are often a client’s best tool because a lifetime of experience has taught him to look beyond the disrepair, clutter and neglect of mismanaged properties and identify their true potential.
“I know what makes a farm appeal to farmers—and I know how to put a property’s best work clothes back on,” Soules said. “Many times, a good clean up almost immediately creates some equity for an investor.”
Soules is also positioned to help investors find good tenants, negotiate favorable lease agreements and provide advice along the way.
“Prompt and informed communication, in my opinion, is the highest form of customer service,” he said.
In addition to responsiveness, clients can rest assured Soules will use his time-tested work ethic combined with his in-depth market knowledge and extensive network to deliver positive results.
“It’s not a complicated model, but it takes good people and hard work to make good things happen,” Soules said. “You can’t translate anything to success by wishing for it, you have to roll up your sleeves and work for it.
The real life of a reality TV celebrity
Soules was in a meeting when his phone rang. The area code was 310. Los Angeles. The then-32-year-old ignored it.
A few minutes later, his phone pinged with a text from his sister. It read: “Answer your phone. The people from The Bachelor are calling you.”
His first thought: “Why in the hell are they calling me?”
Later she fessed up that she had filled out the paperwork and submitted his photo. Soules had a decision to make.
“I farmed all the way through high school and college, so I’d never had any screw off years,” Soules said. “I thought, ‘What the heck? It’s a chance to do something different.’ Plus, I’m a farmer from northeast Iowa, not exactly their normal profile, so I really didn’t expect a thing to come of it.”
He called the producers back. To his surprise, Soules made the cut for the audition and soon found himself as one of the potential suitors on season nine of The Bachelorette. Before joining the cast, he’d only seen snippets of the show in passing.
“One of my ex-girlfriends used to watch it,” Soules said.
“The few times I caught a glimpse as I was walking through, I thought, ‘Those guys are a bunch of losers.’ Then all of the sudden, there I was…a loser.”
Although he didn’t get the girl on The Bachelorette, his unique background and easy going manner held the attention of the producers. He was invited to be the bachelor on the show bearing the same name.
“The show has an almost cult following,” he said. “For a small town Iowa farm boy, it’s a mind-bending experience to go from plowing in anonymity to having people stop you on the streets of big cities to take selfies.”
Soules got engaged on The Bachelor, but it didn’t result in marriage.
“A very public break up wasn’t my goal for getting on the show,” Soules said. “I really hoped to find ‘the one,’ but going out on a limb created opportunities that I never saw coming.”
His public-personal life captured the attention of America and he quickly amassed 1.3 million followers on his social media channels. At that point, he had to ask himself, “What am I going to do with all of this attention?”
Soules’ Midwestern upbringing kicked in. Instead of moving to Hollywood and being someone he wasn’t, Soules began to recognize his new high profile created a bully pulpit to share his passion for agriculture.
“For years, agriculture’s story has been preached to the choir,” Soules said. “It dawned on me that I could tell the industry’s story far beyond the farm.”
It has led to high-profile fundraising partnerships with organizations such as national FFA and No Kid Hungry.
His newfound celebrity also opened the door to an appearance on Dancing with the Stars. While making out with relative strangers on national television had its awkward moments, it was easy compared to dancing on live television in front of 15 million people after only six days preparation.
“From the perspective of sheer nerves, walking out on that stage for the first time was the scariest moment in my entire life,” Soules said. “There were 900 people in the studio audience and millions more watching at home on live TV. No chance for editing or do overs. It took everything I had to keep from vapor locking.”
Preparing for the show places big demands on the body even for a lifelong athlete like Soules, who wrestled in the heavyweight class throughout high school and played college football.
“Dancing with the Stars was harder on my body than anything I’ve ever done,” he said. “I partially tore a calf muscle; I pulled a hamstring—and for the first time ever I had to have cortisone shots.”
With the pain came gain or at least his fancy footwork kept improving as the season progressed. He finished fifth out of 12, one week away from the semi-finals.
“I took a lot away from that experience,” Soules said. “It’s hard to explain what it means to be relatively successful doing something that is so far outside your normal comfort zone. It makes you pretty confident that you can succeed at the things inside your normal wheelhouse.”
Worst Cooks in America also came calling. Apparently, his signature dish of frozen tilapia and frozen broccoli zapped in the microwave earned him a slot on the celebrity season. According to Soules, the women in his life are also indirectly responsible for this invitation.
“My mom and sisters are great cooks,” Soules said. “I never bothered to learn to cook well because they can really cook; I only cook because I have to eat. Cooking on television, though—even bad cooking—was a perfect forum for agriculture.”
These days, he isn’t waiting for producers’ calls. Soules and a communications partner are developing a television pilot centering on agriculture and its sustainability.
“Agriculture needs a voice to speak up,” Soules said. “I never really wanted television or public speaking, but I was given some incredible opportunities. God has a weird plan. I feel a responsibility to help consumers understand that agriculture is the backbone of this country. There is a conversation going on about agriculture and if the industry isn’t a part of the discussion it’s going to be mishandled.”
People Company on Donald Trump, Chris Soules and land investment
For the past 10 years, Peoples Company has hosted the Land Investment Expo. It is now recognized as the nation’s premier agricultural real estate conference. Why? Opinion-leading speakers who leave their scripts at home and share unique, relevant insights.
The roster has included the likes of political odd-couple Mary Matalin and James Carville, T. Boone Pickens and, in 2015, Donald Trump.
“When then-presidential candidate Trump, who is no stranger to reality TV, walked into one of the pre-speech gatherings, the first person he spotted was Chris [Soules],” said Steve Bruere, president of Peoples Company. “He recognized him and made his way over to visit and snap some selfies.”
The conference progressed. Later Trump called Bruere aside to give him some business advice.
“He told me, ‘You need to hire that Soules guy to sell farms for you,’” Bruere said. “I’d known Chris for a quite a while, so I knew he was absolutely right.”
Soules’ high-profile combined with his first-hand knowledge of Midwestern farmland made him a natural fit for the Land Investment Division of Peoples.
“Peoples’ foundation is built on the traditional pillars of agricultural real estate: land brokerage, auctions, appraisals and land management,” Bruere said. “Where we set ourselves apart is with our land investment services.”
In recent years, the company has noted a significant increase in investors who want to solely own and control their assets, so instead of advising these clients to invest in a land fund Peoples provides direct access to land ownership. Regardless of whether investors are just beginning to diversify their portfolios with farmland or if they’re sophisticated, long-term players in the marketplace, Peoples positions its clients for success by aggressively tracking the land market, providing real-time information and discovering the deals that meet criteria to deliver a good return on the investment.
While the company is licensed in 14 states across the Midwest, a majority of its transactions take place in Iowa. Bruere, uses the local lay of the land, as an example of how the land investment division works.
To keep their finger on the Iowa land market’s pulse, the investment team constantly monitors approximately 212 websites with farm-related land sales. They know what land is available and when it is scheduled for auction.
On December 12, 2016, at the time of this writing, there were 550 Iowa farms available. Of those, 150 met the team’s productivity requirements which include that a property be 85 percent tillable. One team member does nothing but attend every land auction with properties of interest, which ranges from 10 to 20 each week.
Constant monitoring, accurate evaluation and boots on the ground presence is important because the demand for fertile farmland outstrips the supply.
“There is more liquidity to invest in land than there is land to invest in,” Bruere said, noting that 150 productive farms averages out to only 1.5 farms per Iowa county that are available to all of the farmers and investors who are interested in acquiring farmland. “It’s a very competitive market.”
When interest is high and supplies are tight, it takes expert advice to buy the right property at the right price.
“In the modern world, money is a commodity, but any investment has to deliver value,” Bruere said. “At Peoples, we know the market, we know how to identify value and determine whether or not it’s a good opportunity. At that point, our clients’ biggest decision is determining if the opportunity fits their personal goals.”
For more information about Peoples Company, or to inquire about how its team may meet your needs, please call (855) 800-LAND (5263) or see www.PeoplesCompany.com.
This article appears in the winter 2017 issue of LAND magazine. Visit www.landmagazines.com to read more and subscribe to future issues of both LAND magazine and TEXAS LAND magazine.