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Trade Uncertainties Lie Heavy Over ABA Ag Bankers Conference

By Alaina Webster

As snow flurries swirled outside Omaha’s CHI Health Center, talk of tariffs and trade wars swirled among the presenters and attendees gathered in Nebraska for the American Bankers Association’s National Agricultural Bankers Conference.

Discussing the recent trade agreement struck by the U.S., Mexico and Canada (USMCA, yet to be passed by Congress as of this writing), opening speaker Joseph W. Glauber, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., said, “Much of what’s in this new agreement is very positive.”

Citing similarities between USMCA and NAFTA, Glauber praised modest market access gains for dairy, poultry and eggs, and stated it was fortunate that some of the provisions advocated by the U.S. (seasonal tariffs on fruits and vegetables, for example) were rejected by Canada and Mexico.

However, when speaking of China, Glauber pointed to the fact that one out of every four rows of U.S. soybeans used to find its way to China, but recent trade tensions between the Asian nation and the U.S. have “tanked” the American corn and soybean markets. Although exports are not down as much as some experts anticipated, farmers should plan on getting an $8 price as compared to the previous average of $10.

“I don’t see an early resolution of this,” said Glauber, speaking of the discord between the two powerful countries. “I hope I’m wrong.”

Succession planning, the futures of farm and ranch land and operations in the U.S., was forefront in everyone’s minds. Monday’s final general session saw five industry leaders take the stage to discuss the Future of Ag Banking. All acknowledged that conversations about succession planning are hard today, and many farmers are feeling the pressure from institutional investors. Moreover, as Kreg D. Denton, senior vice president of First Community Bank of the Heartland in Clinton, Ky., pointed out, most farms are no longer large enough to support two to three families. The panel spoke of helping clients to diversify farming and ranching operations to allow the next generation to stay involved in the family business.

Jeff Plagge, president and CEO, Northwest Financial Corp., Arnolds Park, Iowa, (center) moderates a panel on the future of ag banking with (from L to R) Kreg D. Denton, Tracey Holmes, Jason R. Smith and Nate Franzen. The group addressed topics ranging from succession planning to how technology will affect ag banking going forward to the importance of recruiting the next generation of ag bankers.

The pace of technological innovation within the ag community also raised some concerns for the panel. They worried that bankers who can’t keep up with changing technologies may risk losing the next generation of farmers.

“People don’t expect their banker to know all the ins-and-outs of their business, but they do expect their banker to learn, to expand … they expect their banker to be a partner,” said Tracey Holmes, group managing director, Modesto/Sacramento Agribusiness Banking Center for San Francisco-headquartered Bank of the West.

West Point, Neb.-based F&M Bank’s Market President Jason R. Smith echoed Holmes thoughts. “Data driven knowledge that’s out there is coinciding with the next generation [of farmers] that’s coming back,” he said.

Fred Bruning, CEO of Bruning (Neb.) State Bank, accepts the Bruning Award, which is named after Nebraska banker Frank Bruning – Fred Bruning’s father and the first honoree. The award recognizes the lifetime achievement of individuals for their leadership and outstanding dedication to providing credit and financial guidance to farmers, ranchers and businesses in rural America.

Technology was also seen as a way to encourage ag customers to be more than just loan recipients, however. Denton suggested that with new mobile banking innovations, there is no reason a bank can’t be both lending and deposit institution for a farmer.

“Stay aggressive,” he suggested. “You don’t want to be stupid, but you want to be aggressive.”

And future farmers weren’t the only young people on the minds of the panel participants. Encouraging and growing a new crop of young ag bankers is also of paramount importance to the industry, the speakers maintained.

Nate Franzen, who is president of the Ag Division for Yankton, S.D.’s First Dakota National Bank, visits ag classrooms on college campuses to try to recruit young people to “the other side of the desk.”

“Banking’s not as sexy as we might think it is, so we really need to go out and see it,” he told the crowd.

Smith also warned the assembled bankers against micromanaging the incoming generation of ag bankers. “You hire good people, you educate them, you train them, and then you get the hell out of their way,” he said.

Circling back around to tech, several local industry innovators from Lincoln, Neb. were on hand to share the latest in ag technology with bankers, in the hopes they would in turn pass on the new ideas to their customers.

Vishal Singh, co-founder and CEO of Quantified Ag, shared his company’s method for electronically monitoring livestock through ear tags that collect health data, comparing current data against past data for each tagged animal as well as the entire herd. Traditionally, feed lot operators have depended on pen riders to identify sick livestock, but even an experienced rider only identifies about 40 percent of ill animals on average. In reality, about one in five animals in every feed lot is sick.

“Our system is able to detect illness anywhere from a few days to weeks before a human would pick it up,” he told bankers during one of several breakout sessions throughout the conference.

In the same session, Steve Tippery, RealmFive’s co-founder and CEO detailed how his company can take data from various sensors deployed throughout many different aspects of farm operations and funnel them into one mainframe for data analysis and actionable insights. Tippery believes that more technology isn’t needed, but that lack of qualified labor is the number one issue for many farmers. Automation, he believes, can greatly reduce this issue.

Tippery was followed by Heather Piscatelli, senior research scientist at MatMaCorp. Her company has developed genetic testing services that are faster and cheaper than almost anything else currently on the market. With MatMa’s MagicTip DNA Isolation Method, no trained lab technician or specialized lab equipment is required. Moreover, DNA isolation can be completed from any sample type, and there’s no wait time for
bacterial samples.

Tippery may have perfectly summed up the future of agricultural tech: “We’re not going to recognize agriculture in the next, for sure, 10 years, and I would say 5 years also.”

The convention opened Sunday, Nov. 11 and closed Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018.

Alaina Webster, Managing Editor, awebster@banknews.com.

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