More than 3,000 American banks have been swallowed by larger banks in the last 10 years. Many of the lost institutions were small-town agricultural banks.
Nowadays, those former small-town banks may be branches of a national banking conglomerate headquartered in Los Angeles. The loan officer may not know a corn kernel from a soybean.
But the changes brought on by bank consolidation haven't dried up the flow of loan funds. Banks now account for 41% of all agricultural lending, up from 24% in the mid-1980s.
Nonetheless, consolidation has meant wrenching change for agriculture. Some farmers have had to scramble for new sources of operating loans because their newly consolidated banks don't make farm loans.
But the biggest change has come in the area of service. Old-time bankers understood agriculture and served as financial advisers to keep farmers out of trouble. Today, farmers are often on their own, and it's now more important than ever for them to master their financial records.
For instance, a farmer may now be responsible for figuring out how much money he needs to borrow, rather than depending on the banker to do it for him. The penalty for error is stiff.
If you borrow too much, you pay more interest than you need to, says Robert Ratliff, head of Profitable Farming.com, an Internet service that helps farmers with financial planning. If you borrow too little, you may not have enough to run your operation.
New-style bank managers often want farmers to present organized books and explain their finances in detail at loan time. Failure to do so can be costly. A farmer with a firm grasp of his finances is likely to get a better interest rate than one who hasn't mastered the books, financial experts report.
In the past, being a good farmer often was sufficient. “The old-fashioned bankers knew a farm's finances,” says Ratliff. “You didn't have to explain it to them because they understood farming.”
Farmers also need to master their books because modern bankers are less likely to warn them of impending trouble. “The old-time managers never let a farmer get over extended,” says Ratliff. “They understood how close to the edge you were.”
New-style banks may be less likely to come through when hard times hit. Ratliff says old-time bankers were more likely to cut farmers slack in bad times because they knew their credit history. “If you suffered a drought or lost pigs to lightning, they knew this was no fault of the farmer. They understood the inherent risk of farming,” he says.
“New bank officers often aren't from an agricultural background,” says Bart Ruth, former president of the American Soybean Association. “They may be in your branch only one day a week. Common sense would tell you that your old home-town banker would stay with you longer in a crisis than one based hundreds of miles a way. My area of Nebraska is somewhat unique in that we have a choice. We still have agriculturally oriented banks. I understand that's not the case in a lot of areas.”