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Helping the Next Generation Farm Customer — and Your Bank — Succeed

By: Kari English

Young people looking to farm have a hard time getting into the industry unless they have family already in the farming business, it was stated in a session about helping the next generation farmer get into the business at the American Bankers Association’s annual National Agricultural Bankers Conference. Nathan Franzen, president of the Agri-business Division of First Dakota National, Yankton, S.D., described to ABA members how his bank has started a Beginning Farmer Program to educate and provide leadership to expand the opportunities available in agriculture to young people.
The program, in its second year, requires nine days during the year and a fully refundable $1,000 security deposit — refundable only to those who complete the course. (The first year the program was free, Franzen said, but the bank learned that was not necessarily in its best interest.)

Farmers and ranchers who have been involved in agriculture for less than 10 years and who are at least 21 years of age are eligible to participate in the Beginning Farmer Program; they just have to apply online at the bank’s website. Franzen said it is important that spouses are included in all aspects of the program because the knowledge gained is beneficial in any setting — on or off the farm.

“I have had so many spouses come up and tell me how they enjoyed the program and how they now have a better understanding of what their husband does every day or a better understanding of the industry in general,” said Franzen.

In the first session, the beginning farmers learn about financial management; the second session discusses marketing and succession planning, which is opened up to parents and grandparents to attend; the third session is a travel tour to Pioneer’s global headquarters; and the fourth session evaluates the global outlook and strategic planning.

The bank brings in high-profile speakers such as Dr. David Kohl, professor emeritus at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg; and Dr. Ed Seifried, co-chairman at Seifreid & Brew, Bethlehem, Pa. Although the cost is high for these well-known and respected speakers, Franzen said the long-term rewards of reliable, loyal customers outweigh the costs.

And the program has already started to pay off. The first year, First Dakota National chose current customers to be in the program, but in 2013 Franzen said it had 34 customers and 15 non-customers — and several of those non-customers became customers after the program. In total, 49 beginning farmer families entered the 2013 program with ages ranging from 22 to 41.

The bank has not done any marketing to promote the program, according to Franzen, who said the first year’s alumni sold the spots for the second year with their high praise of the program.

Benefits to the program attendees include high-quality training, mentoring relationships and network opportunities. The benefits to First Dakota National are an increased customer base and a closer, more insightful relationship with its customers.

Franzen is certain First Dakota National will be rewarded for its efforts to help young farmers succeed and believes other banks can do the same even if they do not go to the extent First Dakota National has with its program.

“Anything you do will be helpful to the beginning farmer and the bank,” he said.