How ag lenders are banking on farmers

Joel Oney, vice president and manager of agribusiness lending at Heartland Bank, will be the first to tell you that being an ag banker was pretty easy when corn and soybeans hit all time high prices several years ago. He will also let you know that the team he leads has grown throughout the downturn in the ag economy, as have the number of farmers Heartland lends to.

“Part of that success is a result of staying very close with our clients,” Oney said. “Our delinquency rate, which is a pretty good measurement of stress in a bank’s portfolio, has stayed relatively low. Now, if you look under the hood there is no doubt you would see some stress in our farmers’ portfolios, but the relationships we have built over the years means that we understand their operations and their options to help them work through stressful times like what we are currently experiencing.”

Although the balance sheet is important, Oney and his agribusiness bankers want to know more about the farmer than just the numbers. The overall view of the farm is what goes into lending decisions.

“We look at anything from yields to feed conversion to milk production per cow,” Oney said. “We want to insure that our farmers are operating their farms at very high levels because that is a great sign of future success.”

Many of those achievement factors, as well as strong working capital, can be found on farms that are well established. However, Ohio has seen tremendous growth in new and beginning farmers, adding 34,000, according to the latest census data. Lending to this segment of farmers is certainly not as safe for banks like Heartland, but it is a space they want to be in.

“We have taken the time to really dig in with some of the young farmers looking to get started,” Oney said. “We have a top 10 list of things that we think are helpful to get new and beginning farmers on the right track. Anything from gaining some partnerships with a mentor or a coach to monitoring their credit scores and controlling consumer debt. These are things that their banker is going to want to know about if the farmer wants to start a relationship with that bank.”

Oney says the best advice he can give a less-established farmer is to begin building a relationship with a local bank well before you need them. Obtaining capital from the bank will be a simpler process if the bank already knows a little bit about you and your goals.