Written by Michael Guilfoil, this article was first published in the Spokesman-Review on September 11, 2016.
Ruby Stroschein’s middle name is Miles – appropriate for a woman who logs nearly 20,000 of them each year.
And whenever she sets out from her Moscow office, Stroschein is keenly aware of the minutiae beyond her windshield: what straw in fields suggests about wheat yields; whether lentils have rebounded from their slow start; how much supply sits outside of grain terminals.
“It’s the same thing when I go up into the mountains,” she says. “I’m always looking at the health of different tree species.”
Stroschein’s fascination with rural landscape is inseparable from her two careers. She is one of the region’s few women certified to appraise agricultural land, and has developed software she hopes will help appraisers around the world evaluate farmland and timberland faster and more accurately.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Stroschein: In Logan, Utah – the eighth of 11 children. My dad raised wheat on a southeast Idaho farm so remote that he bought a house in Logan, so we’d have a place to go to school.
S-R: Did you have farm chores?
Stroschein: I drove a D6 Caterpillar tractor when I was 13.
S-R: Any other jobs?
Stroschein: I started working at the Logan A&W when I was 14.
S-R: Did you have a favorite class in high school?
Stroschein: I always enjoyed creative writing. But you can’t be a creative writer when you’re an appraiser. (laugh)
S-R: Did you imagine a career back then?
Stroschein: Nope. I married a cattle rancher from Dillon, Montana. Our 4,000-acre ranch sat right on the Lewis and Clark Trail – also very remote.
S-R: Was there a moment or event that changed the direction of your life?
Stroschein: The farm crisis of the mid-1980s. Nineteen percent interest just slaughtered those people. I did a lot of private consulting: crunching numbers and running cash flows for farmers; negotiating settlements with lending institutions.
S-R: How did you get into appraising?
Stroschein: After my first marriage ended, I moved back to Logan and worked for an attorney who taught me about deeds and legal descriptions. Next I worked for a Realtor, got my license and started my own firm. When the ’86 crash came along, the FDIC shut down a nearby bank and needed someone to evaluate the bank’s real-estate assets. So I started doing that, and later wrote a novel about the experience, called “Allegory of Malad City.”
S-R: What brought you to Moscow?
Stroschein: I needed an undergraduate degree in order to get my MAI designation, meaning I’m qualified to evaluate commercial, industrial, agricultural and residential property. So my current husband, Tom, leased out his 1,000-acre sheep and potato farm and we moved up here. I went on to earn a master’s in ag econ.
S-R: What was it like going to college in your 50s?
Stroschein: Awesome. It was hard – especially upper-level calculus and economics – but I loved the kids.
S-R: When you talk to students now, what’s the takeaway?
Stroschein: Land is the underlying economic principle of everything, and kids are amazed how little they know about legal descriptions, townships, ranges … even how many square feet are in an acre. (Answer: 43,560)
S-R: Most people are familiar with the criteria home appraisers consider: location, square footage, condition. What do you focus on when appraising farmland?
Stroschein: If it’s in an irrigated area, the first thing I look at are water rights. If it’s dryland, I’ll look at annual rainfall. Just west from Colfax, you quickly drop from 21 inches of annual precip down to 18, which is the difference between growing an annual crop and only one crop every two years. That’s huge.
S-R: Soft white wheat prices are down significantly from where they were several years ago. How much do commodity prices affect farmland value?
Stroschein: Investors aren’t as interested in the price per acre so much as cash flow. So I run a five-year average. But when wheat prices drop from $6 a bushel to $5.50, that significantly effects returns once you subtract fixed costs.
S-R: How have farmland prices changed since you started appraising in 1986?
Stroschein: Not all farmland is equal. But in general, I’d say Palouse land values have gone from around $1,200 an acre 30 years ago to a peak of $3,500 in 2013-2014, and since then have dropped back to around $2,500.
S-R: What caused the spike in 2013?
Stroschein: Two things – commodity prices, and a ton of people with cash in their pockets, looking for opportunities.
S-R: Who’s buying farmland today?
Stroschein: Investors who want agricultural land in their portfolio, and neighbors who want to get bigger.
S-R: Who’s selling?
Stroschein: Estates where the primary property owner has passed away, or farmers looking for capital. They’ll sell their farm and take a long-term lease with an investor. All the investor cares about is the return.
S-R: When you’re hired to appraise land, does that make people curious?
Stroschein: Sure. Most deals are cut privately. Some clients don’t even want me driving my truck on their property, because they don’t want neighbors to know they’re negotiating with someone. If a neighbor got wind, they’d probably call the landlord and say, “Hey, I’ll pay you more.”
S-R: How long does it take to complete an appraisal?
Stroschein: I average one a week, and we’re usually booked out six to eight weeks.
S-R: Has demand been pretty steady over the years?
Stroschein: Oh, yes. One thing about this business is that you appraise when the economy is going up, and appraise when it’s going down. I also do a lot of work for conservation easements and eminent domain – for instance, when there’s a road project.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Stroschein: I really enjoy getting out, and the fact that every piece of land is different, with a unique set of problems.
S-R: Do you ever use drones when appraising?
Stroschein: Yes, when a site is difficult to reach. If I can’t see it that way, I hire a pilot and fly over the property.
S-R: What do you like least about your job?
Stroschein: The pressure people put on me to come in with the value they want.
S-R: Has anyone ever tried to bribe you?
Stroschein: No, but they’ve threatened me, saying I’d never get another job.
S-R: What are you most proud of about your business?
Stroschein: How hard we work to provide good numbers. That was the premise for developing my software.
S-R: Tell me about Keylock Solutions.
Stroschein: It’s software that makes appraising land faster and more accurate. Often we are hired to develop rural land valuation models. It’s using the same methodology as Zillow, but we plug in more credible data. I started working on it in 2003 while doing a study for the Idaho Transportation Department. We currently have about 25 clients, include a big Portland-based timber appraisal company. When I visited Holland recently, appraisers there urged me to get it translated into Dutch.
S-R: Looking back, would you have done anything differently?
Stroschein: I would have collaborated more. I learned a lot while serving 12 years on the Idaho Real Estate Appraisal Licensing Board.
S-R: What challenges does your industry face?
Stroschein: Everyone’s retiring, and no one is filling the pipeline. I’ve been working with the University of Idaho to establish a farm, ranch and timber appraisal program.
S-R: What sort of person is best suited for this career?
Stroschein: Someone who gets excited about numbers.
S-R: Do you think about retiring?
Stroschein: A lot. But then I wonder what I’d do, because I like to work.
S-R: Do you have any secret talents?
Stroschein: (laugh) I used to be an awesome Harley rider. I had a 2003 limited-edition Heritage Softail Springer. But I gave it up last year after 30,000 miles because my husband was freaking out.
S-R: What’s at the top of your bucket list?
Stroschein: To ride my motorcycle across the U.S. and join the Rolling Thunder rally down to the Vietnam wall in Washington, D.C., on Memorial Day weekend. That would be cool.
This interview has been condensed. If you’d like to suggest a business or community leader to be profiled, contact Michael Guilfoil at firstname.lastname@example.org