Rural bankers invest in farmer education events

Farm economist David Kohl, Ph.D, engages ag customers hosted by Security Bank, Laurel, Neb.

On the third Tuesday of January, the Heartland Tri State Bank in Elkart, Kan., will shepherd more than 100 farm customers into their local civic center to hear speakers expound on topics ranging from ag economics, crop insurance, commodity prices, and updates from Washington, D.C. Farmer Day starts at 10 a.m. and goes until 2 p.m. and in addition to education, farmers can nosh on a complimentary dinner of fried chicken and fixings.

Heartland has hosted more than 15 such farm-focused seminars in the past decade. The purpose initially was to offer help with marketing tactics and tech challenges but the event has evolved in recent years toward broader economic trends and crop prices. For its upcoming event, the bank hopes to bring in Erik Snodgrass, a lively weatherman from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

The events “have economic value for the whole town,” said Shan Hanes, president and CEO of the southwestern Kansas bank. Heartland Tri State Bank partners with local brokerage firms to keep it free for the farmers.

One year, participants were asked to imagine scenarios that included international characters, fictional price changes and banking trends, which forced farmers to work through an artificial financial challenge with their bankers. “We group together new farmers, old farmers and generational farmers,” Hanes said. “They really learn from one another.

“We want [the farmers] to know we’re here with them,” Hanes said. Bankers, Hanes said, are partners with the farmers they work with, and learn with them through the different seasons of the economic ag environment.

Security Bank in Laurel, Neb., has hosted a similar day-long farmer seminar for five years. David Kohl, Ph.D., an esteemed ag economist, has been a keynote speaker at three of them. “[Kohl] provides good insight on the state of the ag economy and what to be watchful of in the future,” said Brandon Baller, Security Bank’s chief credit officer.

With more than 5 million miles traveled to various educational events and a dairy farm of his own, Kohl offered a 30,000-foot view of the farm economy and explained what has happened globally, and the effects on the ag economy and the farmers doing business in northeast Nebraska.

For Security Bank’s December event, Kevin Van Trump will speak on changing economic ag trends and prices. “We’re trying to heighten awareness and challenge peoples’ thought processes and get them to think differently and proactively about the way they do business, and treat [their farms] like a business,” Baller said.

Farmers like to be acknowledged and thanked for their business. It seems obvious, because it is, said John Blanchfield, an independent bankers’ consultant and speaker at bank-sponsored farmer appreciation days – including Hanes’ and Baller’s.

Blanchfield said community bankers need to find a way to set themselves apart in an industry that’s increasingly transactional. Blanchfield started a business as an independent bankers’ consultant four years ago after spending 25 years as head of agricultural and rural banking policy for the American Bankers Association.

When a farmer gets to see his banker in a polo-shirt and slacks, farmers and bankers can work through the financial landscapes together. “A whole different way to learn is by knowing the people involved,” Blanchfield said. “Almost magically, that kind of environment engages customers on a new level.

“We’re in a difficult season in the ag business, and more than ever, bankers need to tie those relationships with customers,” Blanchfield added. “These events are the way community bankers can express that they give a damn.”

Baller described the current economic state in agriculture as “uncertain” with tight margins. In some cases, he said, the cost of production exceeds revenue.

As hundreds of rural Nebraskans and Kansans file in to their local community centers this winter, they’ll see round tables with the name of their banks on placards “next to a delicious chicken sandwich,” Blanchfield laughed. “Providing a nice meal that people enjoy is part of it.”

It takes good speakers, a welcoming environment, a little beer, and a good meal, Blanchfield said. “It’s not that hard, but it’s not that easy.”

Hanes said the community’s positive response is enough momentum to keep the events annual. “We bring them together with food and entertainment, and hopefully teach them something along the way.”

Similarly, Baller said if the farm seminars have one positive economic impact on the farmers’ operations, then “it’s worth our time and theirs.”