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Rose Oswald PoelsBy Rose Oswald Poels

When WBA’s charitable arm, the Wisconsin Bankers Foundation (WBF), was founded in 2015, education remained a top priority to aid the public in increasing their financial literacy and responsibility.

As part of this, the Foundation is proud to offer well-known programs such as Reading Raises Interest Kits that assist bankers in coordinating curriculum used during Teach Children to Save Day in April and scholarships awarded to students throughout the state for their demonstration of excellent financial capabilities. Involvement in these programs brings the Foundation one step closer to ensuring the financial knowledge and responsibility of every youth in our state.

Now through November 15, the Foundation will be accepting applications for the third annual Agricultural Banking Scholarship!

Students who will be enrolled in an accredited Wisconsin college, university, or technical college during the Spring of 2023 and are pursuing a career related to agricultural banking are encouraged to apply.

With agriculture serving as one of Wisconsin’s largest economic drivers, it is critical that we invest now in the students that are interested in driving this critical sector of our state.

The Foundation is also excited to announce this year’s Agricultural Banking Scholarship award has been increased to $1,500 each for the two qualified winners in order to help combat rising tuition costs, assist individuals in reaching their goals, and promote financial literacy in every consumer.

I encourage you to share this exciting opportunity widely within your networks — current and past ag interns, parents of college-aged children, and educators at the many ag programs throughout the state. By aiding us in spreading the word to qualified students, you play a significant part in assisting the Foundation to serve its mission as well as provide new opportunities for your community!

Please visit wisbankfoundation.org/scholarships to learn more or contact WBF’s Foundation Coordinator Hannah Flanders with any questions.

Farming is both a specialized industry and high risk when it comes to financials. That’s why the Agricultural Lending School is a key educational offering of the Wisconsin Bankers Association. This is a hands-on seminar for members to get a handle on today’s ag markets and farm balance sheets. WBA Director of Education Lori Kalscheuer tells Mid-West Farm Report about enrollment numbers and curriculum for this year’s cohort.

Photo taken in Clinton, Wis. by Debra Hall, First National Bank and Trust Company

By Paul Gores

Many Wisconsin farmers are headed for a profitable year, but they’re already uneasy about 2023, ag bankers in the state say.

Coming off a strong 2021 that saw rising dairy and commodity prices, farmers entered the year financially fit and, in many cases, with locked-in input expenses that have blunted 2022’s surge in inflation.

But with the cost of fertilizer and diesel fuel ballooning, and livestock feed for those who don’t produce their own feed becoming more expensive, it’s hard to see how the next growing season can be as solid as this one has been so far, bankers said.

“I think there’s more anxiety about what next year looks like than there is over what this year looks like right now,” said Dave Coggins, senior vice president ag banking for Green Bay-based Nicolet National Bank.

With diesel fuel now topping $5 a gallon, and with fertilizer prices up in part because key ingredients come from embattled Ukraine and Russia, input costs are increasing.

“A number of farmers were able to contract prices last fall and early winter before they totally took off and escalated. So some of them have fuel locked in for this year less than $3,” said Jenny Jereczek, director of ag banking for Security Financial Bank in Durand. “So they’re doing all right for this season. What I’m hearing and seeing and in talking with people is 2023. Right now, there is not really a good opportunity to contract good pricing for next year, and will there be? No one has the crystal ball.”

Bradley J. Guse, senior vice president/agribusiness banking for BMO Harris Bank in Marshfield, said many farmers, coming off a good 2021, are having a strong 2022 in spite of the rocky economy. He cited record crop prices in the first three months of the year, when prices typically are low, and the benefit of farmers growing their own feed.

“In Wisconsin, we grow a lot of our feed. That’s a big advantage to our Wisconsin dairy guys,” Guse said. “Because of that, they are feeding feed that they grew last year now, and last year’s cost to grow was a lot cheaper than this year. So we’ve got low feed prices because we grew cheaper last year, and we’re running the into these high milk prices. And we’re seeing margins that are just phenomenal.”

Milk has been selling for about $25 per 100 pounds, hovering near record levels.

But he, too, is concerned about next season.

“I’m not so worried about my clients and my portfolio this year as I am next year,” Guse said.

Ag bankers said international events and circumstances often set the stage for prices farmers pay to produce their goods and the prices they get at market.

“There was a drought in South America, a pretty serious one. That’s impacted crops — corn, soybeans — that are big crops in South America, especially soybeans,” Coggins said. “So we’ve got really high soybean prices in part because of that. But also, the war in Ukraine has had a serious impact on supplies of grains in general, but basically corn, wheat, barley, sunflower oil. Russia exports a fair amount. Ukraine exports a fair amount. I think the Black Sea region produces about 12% of the world’s calories, and so that’s a big deal.”

That affects the availability of those grains and pushes up the price. In Wisconsin, that means dairy farms that buy their feed pay more. But, in turn, it provides higher prices for the state’s grain producers.

What happens in the Black Sea region also has an impact on fertilizer prices. Coggins said 47% of the world’s phosphate and potash, which are used in fertilizer, come out of Russia and Belarus.

“There’s not a lot of other alternatives for getting that fertilizer. Most farms were in OK shape this year. Might have been able to lock in some prices late last fall or winter,” Coggins said. “But there is a lot of anxiousness about what those prices and availability might look like for 2023.”

The rise and fall of energy prices also is an inescapable fact of life for farmers. According to the Diesel Technology Forum, diesel engines power about 75% of all farm equipment, transport 90%
of farm products, and pump about 20% of agriculture’s irrigation water in the U.S.

Lance Lansing, vice president-commercial and ag loans for Wisconsin Bank & Trust, said the price rise with diesel fuel is mostly a refining capacity issue.

“Investors don’t want to put new refineries up right now,” said Lansing, who works out of Monroe and Platteville. “With electric cars coming out, nobody’s running to put new refineries up and have that sort of investment, not knowing what their return’s going to be.”

Lansing described the current farm economy as “volatile.”

“There’s a lot of moving parts. One saving grace is we have had good commodity prices. The milk price has obviously been up, and futures still look good. Same with the row crops. The row crops are still looking good, and a lot of people are locked in at a profit in 2022,” Lansing said. “2023 might be a different story.”

Although there is worry about next year, many farms today are in a good position financially, Jereczek said. But they are being cautious.

“At least in this area, we’re seeing some expansion, but maybe not like we’ve seen in the past when commodity prices have gotten to these levels,” Jereczek said. “I think farmers and bankers alike are more strategic this go-round, and have learned a lot from the past in regards to now is the time for improving leverage positions, paying down debt, paying down lines of credit and maybe stacking some cash away in savings for liquidity purposes, and those kinds of things.”

Still, some are making strategic equipment purchases they delayed when finances were tighter four or five years ago, she said.

Lansing said he isn’t seeing many farmers interested in spending to expand herds or land right now, even though commodity prices are high.

“I’m just a small section of the state here, but a lot of people aren’t reinvesting as far as in growth mode. They are more in, ‘Let’s find out what’s going to happen, pay down debt, right-size debt type’ mode,” Lansing said.

Higher interest rates might be dampening some spending by farmers, but it’s hard to say how much.

“I think the interest rates are maybe a little bit inhibiting some of that stuff,” Jereczek said.

But she said a lot of operating lines already were done over the winter and early spring.

“So they are not necessarily impacted by the rate increases we’ve see more recently,” Jereczek said.

Ag bankers said crop conditions generally look good around the state, but rain will be needed in early August.

“Rain in July makes corn, rain in August makes beans,” Guse said.

Coggins said it appears soybeans are likely to be a winning crop this year.

“Soybeans are really at all-time highs for price right now, in large part because of what happened in South America,” he said. “And the input costs of soybeans are less than corn, so that’s a crop that has the potential to be a winner this year, absent any major weather events.”

As for how farmers fare next year, much will depend on inflation and its upward pressure on input expenses, ag bankers said.

“Financing of inputs for next year could be a completely different story,” Jereczek said.

A recession might also be looming. While demand for Wisconsin farm products is high right now, a recession could change the outlook.

“I think every ag banker right now is worried about a recession destroying that demand,” Guse said. “I think we’re all concerned about that — what’s on the horizon.”

Gores is a journalist who covered business news for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for 20 years.

Corn seedling

By Paul Gores

Efforts to mitigate climate change are under way globally, and banks of all sizes would be prudent to prepare for regulations that climate concerns are bound to spur, experts say.

Getting ahead of the curve now will give banks time to develop a thought-out strategy rather than having to deal with it quickly as mandates are issued, according to speakers at a recent Marquette University banking conference titled, “Climate Change: What are the risks, realities, and challenges?”

Although at this point only banks with assets of $100 billion or more are being targeted to include climate risk considerations in their examination routines, eventually those rules will find their way to smaller banks and credit unions, said Kent Belasco, the director of Marquette’s commercial banking program, which hosted the online conference this spring.

Belasco, who has held annual commercial banking conferences on topics such as cybersecurity, financial crimes, and fintech, said he felt the time was right to look at what banks need to know about the eventuality of regulations focused on climate change.

“What I wanted to structure was just purely an informational session that says, OK, it may not be affecting me from a regulatory standpoint right now, but me, as a former banker, I knew that whenever the Fed started talking about something — even if they said it’s not going to affect you right now — it will, and you better get prepared for it,” Belasco said in an interview for the Wisconsin Bankers Association about the event.

Speakers at the Marquette conference were in agreement there is no doubt climate change risks and regulations for banks are coming, and banks should not only prepare for inevitable new rules, but also consider the transition to sustainable fuels and lending to greener businesses a growth opportunity. They acknowledged it may seem intimidating at first, but said banks can adapt.

“You guys have navigated really tough crises in the past, and here you are,” said Ariana Gomez, founder and chief executive officer of the consulting firm Technology for Impact.

She said bankers should ask themselves how they can be “an accelerator” in the transition.

“Because you hold the money at the end of the day. How can you be an accelerator here and grow your own business by doing the right thing?” Gomez said.

Michael Cohn, a principal at the Boston-based consulting firm Wolf & Company, said some companies he works with are early adopters that see what’s coming.

“They clearly see social and societal and consumer behavior beginning to drive the selection of companies that they want to do business with,” said Cohn. “They are not afraid of moving forward, even in the face of all the ambiguity that still exists out there.”

He said management teams for those companies know that if they move early, they can take their time to develop plans.

“And if they take their time and they can be thoughtful, they will be able to implement these programs at less expense,” Cohn said.

One hurdle that could keep some banks on the sidelines for now is the political debate over climate change. Not everyone is yet convinced it’s a risk they should have to account for — or in some cases, whether it’s even the great threat many consider it to be.

Shareholders at three of the nation’s biggest banks — Citigroup, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo — this spring voted down proposals aimed at reducing their lending to new fossil-fuel projects.

However, the proposals cleared thresholds to qualify for resubmission next year, according to a report by American Banker.

Regardless of the politics around climate change, many nations, including the U.S. government and its agencies, are taking it seriously. In the U.S., efforts are starting to come from various federal regulators, including bank regulators. While the focus now is on the biggest institutions, it will widen, the experts said.

In December last year, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency released a document, “Principles for Climate-Related Financial Risk for Large Banks,” aimed at banks with more than $100 billion in assets.

“At the same time the OCC said that all banks, regardless of size, may have material exposures to climate-related financial risks,” environmental attorney Jason Lichtstein said during the Marquette conference.

Climate change, simply put, is the long-term change of weather and temperatures resulting from the burning of fossil fuels. Greenhouse gases from fossil fuel consumption move into the earth’s atmosphere and capture heat from the sun, causing the global temperature to rise.

Lichtstein, citing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said climate change impacts are happening now and increasing in scope, frequency, and intensity. In 2020, there were more than $22 billion weather and climate disasters in the U.S., a record, he said.

“From 1980 to 2021, there was an annual average of 7.7 events, and the annual average for the most recent five years, from 2017 to 2021, was 17.8 events,’’ said Lichtstein, whose practice with the national law firm Akerman LLP focuses on the cleanup and redevelopment of brownfields and other contaminated sites.

The international goal is to hold the global temperature increase to no more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050.

The Biden administration is seeking to reduce U.S. greenhouse gases by 50% to 52% from 2005 levels by 2030. The longer-range goal is net zero emissions by 2050. Net zero means producing less carbon than we take out of the atmosphere.

Industries producing the most greenhouse gases are energy, transportation, manufacturing, building, and agriculture.

The fallout from climate change includes higher sea levels and more destructive storms, floods, and wildfires. Among financial risks include potential market and credit losses, equity and bond price declines, carbon asset write-downs, falling property values and the costs of transitioning to cleaner energy.

A 2019 report by the firm Oliver Wyman, “Climate Change: Managing a New Financial Risk,” stated that in addition to operational and market risks, climate change can lead to increased credit risk for banks. The report said, for instance, that mortgage portfolios could be hit by events that reduce property values.

In a report last year, the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts, which is a statewide collaboration of scientists and stakeholders formed as a partnership between UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said that since 2011, data in the state showed continued warming, increases in rain and snow, and more-frequent extreme rainfall events.

“Statewide temperatures have warmed by about three degrees Fahrenheit and precipitation has increased by nearly twenty percent since 1950,” the report says. “In the last decade, nearly every region of the state has experienced extreme rainfall events that led to flooding of roads, homes, businesses, and farm fields.”

The Wisconsin report said, among other concerns, that warmer winters, increasing deer herds, extreme weather events, summer droughts, and longer growing seasons are stressing forest ecosystems and increasing the risk of outbreaks of new pests and diseases.

“Iconic species like the paper birch are vanishing from northern forests as the climate warms,” the report says. “Forest management, logging, and the forest products supply chain are facing uncertainty, with implications for rural economies.”

In the future, banks are likely to be required to account for how their lending — the businesses they lend to — could affect climate change. They also are expected to have to account for whether their key third-party vendors are complying with efforts to mitigate climate change, participants in the Marquette conference said.

“We are observing all the time that nobody has yet put in good solid detailed vendor due diligence and vendor monitoring practices over whether their vendors have put in climate risk management programs,” Cohn said. “Nobody is there yet. It has not worked its way into one of the most basic risk management activities, which is monitor your vendors.”

Governments around the world are pushing for mandatory climate risk reporting, said David Carlin, who leads the Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures and the climate risk program for the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative.

The task force has designed standardized guidelines to help organizations disclose material climate risks, explain plans to manage exposure, and describe how the shift to a zero-carbon economy would affection their operations.

“What we’re seeing is that there’s a lot of work on getting boards up to speed, getting executive leadership involved in the climate risk process on the governance side,” Carlin said. “On the strategy side, climate opportunities are an area that has been of increasing interest, and strategies are explicitly being developed alongside sustainable finance frameworks to bring those things to fruition.”

Unlike risk scenario analysis that can rely on the past to project what is likely to happen, climate change is dynamic, which makes it more challenging to predict risks.

One thing all banks should be aware of is that the customers and employees of the future — millennials and Gen Z — want their banks to be mindful of climate change and involved in slowing it. Those groups are “looking for places with purpose,” said Gomez.

“They want to work and earn a salary, but they also want to transcend, to have positive impact on the planet,” she said.

Belasco said he also has seen that motivation in college students he has trained.

“There is no doubt that millennials and Gen Z are hyper focused on the products and services they use and what is the impact to the environment when they go ahead and use them,” Cohn said.

Cohn said it’s time for banks to consider the risks that come with climate change.

“When we talk about climate and credit, we are worried about are we going to wind up with defaults because of companies that either are not making transitions, or they are so fossil fuel dependent that the markets and consumers move completely away and they cannot pay us back,” Cohn said.

He said banks need to analyze who they’re going to do business with in the future, even though brown industries and the world aren’t ready yet to shed their usage of fossil fuels. Banks must consider migrating funding to new green industries and slowly wean some of the brown industries.

“That’s where the banking system and banking, both at a national, regional, and community level, can have the biggest impact — because there are a lot of small companies out there that are doing the right thing,” he said.

It will be important for banks to establish — and soon — a panel or person to oversee the bank’s climate change efforts and set up a process for identifying, assessing, and managing climate-related risks, Cohn said.

“Committees provide two things: They provide oversight and they provide the approval for the provision of resources,” Cohn said.

Executives need to make sure climate risk is something everyone in the organization is on top of, although the chief risk officer probably is going to be “the orchestra leader for these plans,” Cohn said.

Cohn said even though it might seem overwhelming at times, banks should get started now because the pace of change isn’t going to slow down.

“The world right now is moving likely at the slowest rate of change it will for the rest of our lives,” he said.

Gores is a journalist who covered business news for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for 20 years.

Vieau and Endres on Farm

By Cassandra Krause

Ask anyone from out of state what the first thing that comes to mind is when they think of  Wisconsin, and they’re likely to respond “farms” — and for good reason. Wisconsin farmers work hard to put food on tables across Wisconsin and the globe. Fondly known as “America’s Dairyland,” Wisconsin is also a leading producer of cranberries (the state fruit), soybeans, potatoes, ginseng, corn — the list goes on and on.  

According to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP), agriculture is a major economic driver, contributing $104.8 billion annually to our state’s economy. The state is home to 64,100 farms on 14.2 million acres (the average farm size in Wisconsin is 222 acres). For those working in the industry, farming is not just a profession, but a way of life — one that poses unique stressors and challenges.

Tough Times Made Tougher by the COVID-19 Pandemic

In the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. farmers were already dealing with damaging weather conditions, increased global competition and tariffs, and falling commodity prices. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), citing data from the Federal Reserve, reported in July of 2021:

Clear signs of financial distress had emerged among U.S. farmers even prior to the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak. Investment in equipment was down, farmer debt was up, and so was borrowing against land. By the end of 2019, the delinquency rate on commercial loans hit a six-year high, and the delinquency rate on farmland loans was at its highest level since 2013.

When COVID-19 began rapidly spreading and parts of the global economy shut down, the food system was hit by major supply and demand shocks. For example, when demand for milk from restaurants and schools plummeted due to closures, producers were forced to dump milk. Meanwhile, milk supply on grocery store shelves was sparse for consumers purchasing for their homes, and prices rose.

Sara Kohlbeck

Sara Kohlbeck
is the director of the Division of Suicide Prevention at the Medical College of Wisconsin and a researcher on farmer suicide in Wisconsin.

Especially on small farms, many families rely on income and benefits from jobs outside of the farm and were hurt by job losses due to the pandemic. In addition to the financial stresses of running a family farm, interpersonal issues often come into play between spouses and family members who work together. This is particularly evident when it comes to succession planning and the legacy of a longstanding family tradition.

A 2018 survey from the National Farm Medicine Center, headquartered in Marshfield, showed that 29% of farmers suffered from depression and 35% suffered from anxiety. The National Farm Medicine Center conducts a wide range of research ranging from topics such as child rearing and women on farms to veterans who become farmers. More can be found at marshfieldresearch.org/nfmc.

Sara Kohlbeck is the director of the Division of Suicide Prevention at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) and is researching farmer suicide in Wisconsin for her doctoral dissertation. “Just about every farmer I talked to mentioned finances as a stressor,” said Kohlbeck of interviews conducted for her research. A small, organic farm may be one hailstorm away from being wiped out, and a larger farm may be millions of dollars in debt — the farmers’ entire livelihood can be at stake. While suicide is a relatively rare outcome (about 190 farmers are reported to have died by suicide from 2004–2018), Kohlbeck emphasizes that, “even one is too many.” Suicide rates are disproportionately high among farmers (about 2% of total suicides in Wisconsin, while farmers make up about 1% of the labor force), pointing to a larger mental health concern.

Resources for Farmer Wellness

Wisconsin Farm Center and Farmer Wellness Program
Farmcenter.wi.gov

  • Farm Culture Training for Ag Lenders and Ag Service Providers
  • Online Farmer and Farm Couple Support Groups
  • 24/7 Farmer Wellness Helpline | 888-901-2558
  • Tele-counseling | 888-901-2558
  • Counseling Vouchers | 800-942-2474

DATCP’s Farm Center started during the farm financial crisis of the 1980s, when farmland values dropped up to 60% in some areas of the Midwest. At its onset, the Farm Center strengthened relationships between ag lenders and farmers. It has since expanded its consulting and referral services to include financial consulting (reviewing balance sheets and cash flow, analyzing profitability and viability, analyzing debt structure, etc.), transition/succession planning (financial stability, operating agreements, tax implications, etc.), and farm mediation (dispute resolution).

The Farm Center’s Farmer Wellness Program began with $200,000 of funding in the 2019–21 biennial state budget and is now in addition funded by USDA grant money and other sources.

Vieau and Endres on Farm

Penn Vieau and Karen Endres are hosts of the “Rural Realities” podcast and recently brought their wellness messages to the stage at the WBA Agricultural Bankers Conference.

The Farmer Wellness Program offers services including a 24/7 Wisconsin farmer wellness helpline (888-901-2558), tele-counseling, and counseling vouchers. It also hosts online farmer and farm couple support groups. All of the resources are free of charge to Wisconsin farmers and their families. The services are there for those who are experiencing anxiety or depression, or just need a welcoming ear to talk to. Karen Endres, Farmer Wellness Program coordinator at the Wisconsin Farm Center, explained that the program was designed with the “4 A’s” in mind: affordability, accessibility, acceptability, and awareness. “Our most important resource is our mind,” said Endres. “We need to do a better job of taking care from [the neck] up.”

Endres noted that rural areas lost some of their sense of community during the pandemic as people were no longer seeing each other at coffee shops, card clubs, and so forth. The Farmer Wellness Program’s farmer support groups have served to combat the isolation felt by many farmers and have the added benefit of connecting farmers from around the state who may not otherwise have met but have much in common. Every session is facilitated by a licensed mental health provider with experience serving farmers and/or a trained peer leader.

The helpline, tele-counseling (via phone or Zoom), and vouchers for in-person counseling sessions all connect farmers and their families with licensed mental health professionals. The counselors can help bring control to farmers in navigating challenging situations. One farmer caller who sought mental wellness counseling for the first time through the program said, “please tell every farmer there is hope.”

Shifting the Mindset

Endres teamed up with mindset coach and former banker Penn Vieau to produce the Farm Center’s ‘Rural Realities’ podcast, which provides expert advice that can help farmers reduce stress, improve finances, implement effective farm family communication skills, and more. Vieau recently addressed the Wisconsin Bankers Association (WBA) Agricultural Bankers Conference on the power of a positive mindset and is scheduled to speak at the upcoming WBA Building Our Leaders of Tomorrow (BOLT) Summer Leadership Summit, June 9–10, 2022 in Wisconsin Dells. He discussed how the stigma of mental health in farming communities can be a barrier to getting help. “Stress does not equal crazy,” said Vieau. “When stress is too much to bear, talk to somebody.”

A 2019 American Farm Bureau Federation study revealed that a majority of farmers/farmworkers think the media (72%), people in their local community (58%), and their friends (56%) attach at least a fair amount of stigma to mental health.

How Bankers Can Support Farmer Mental Health

Agricultural bankers are part of rural communities and have strong ties to the farming industry — many grew up on or live on farms themselves. MCW’s Kohlbeck said bankers may be coming into contact with farmers more often than their doctors. “We’re not expecting them to be therapists, but in some ways, bankers can be nontraditional helpers,” she said. She said the most important ways bankers can help are 1) sharing resources and 2) understanding the red flags and what to do about them.

Karen Endres

Karen Endres
Farmer Wellness Program Coordinator
Wisconsin Farm Center

Endres underscored, “bankers are relationship people, and they want to do what’s best.” She recommends the Farmer Wellness Program’s online farm culture training for agricultural service providers. It is a free, virtual course to help ag lenders and other service providers understand the unique stresses and challenges of farming, handle difficult conversations, and recognize signs and symptoms of stress with farm clients. More information and the link to register are available at farmcenter.wi.gov.

One piece of advice Vieau offered the attendees of his presentation was to create a “personal board of directors” for their mental wellbeing — in other words, identify a group of close contacts to serve as trusted advisors and consultants. He pointed out that a banker is most likely already on a farmer’s “personal board of directors,” so the banker has a unique opportunity to share a flyer or card for the Farm Center’s services. “Bankers are always offering a value-add, like sharing trending reports,” said Vieau, and likened the practice to hospitality staff offering tips on local attractions. He said it’s a great idea for bankers to use the resources and information offered by the Farm Center for themselves personally and as an added service for their clients.

To learn how to spot the signs of distress in farmers, bankers and community members may participate in gatekeeper training for lay people. The Wisconsin Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is one example of an organization that offers free, one-hour training sessions online and in person.

The Outlook

All of the experts interviewed for this story agreed that more can be done to build more supportive communities and policies for farmers. “Instead of expecting farmers to reach out, we need to reach in,” said Kohlbeck. “Farmers are proud. For policies on things like climate change, don’t put the onus on farmers to solve the problems on their own.”

Penn Vieau

Penn Vieau
Professional Speaker and Coach

Vieau noted, “we spend a lot of time with [corporate] executives doing leadership training, and we need to do the same to break the stigma with farmers, who are independent businesspeople.” He highlighted that this focus is also important in encouraging the next generation of young people, who prioritize mental wellness in their careers, to become farmers.

Similarly, Endres expressed the need for everyone to look out for our farmers, who are stewards of the land and grow our food. She encourages community members to talk to one another and direct those who could benefit from a resource or service on how to access it.

“If one person shares a resource and saves a life, that’s a pretty great day,” concluded Endres.

If you are thinking about suicide or are concerned about the wellbeing of someone you know, call the Wisconsin Lifeline at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255), the Wisconsin Farmer Wellness Helpline (888-901-2558), or 911.

The Wisconsin Bankers Foundation has awarded UW-Platteville senior Alexis Boston and UW-River Falls junior Joseph Schlies with the 2021 Agricultural Banking Scholarship. The scholarship is given to two students who plan to go into a career in agriculture finance and who demonstrate in their application a strong understanding of the importance of financial literacy.

Boston is a declared agribusiness major expected to graduate this December. She has worked as an agribusiness professor assistant at UW-Platteville and currently is involved in many on-campus and community organizations including UW-Platteville’s Agribusiness Club, the Collegiate Farm Bureau, and the National Agri-Marketing Association.

Schlies is a declared agricultural business major. He currently holds two positions at the college as a teaching assistant in the Agricultural Economics Department and as a residential assistant. Previously, Schlies was the state president for the Wisconsin Association of FFA State Officers. He is also actively involved on his campus as the vice chair of the Finance Committee and at-large senator of the Student Government Association.

“Joseph and Alexis’s passion for agricultural finance and making an impact on their community is foundational to the qualifications for the Foundation’s Agricultural Banking Scholarship,” said Foundation Chair Rose Oswald Poels. “I am pleased that we are able to honor their achievements with this scholarship and wish them each much success in their future agribusiness careers.”

Joseph Schlies (center) accepts 2021 Agricultural Banking Scholarship from WBF Chair Rose Oswald Poels (second from left). Also pictured are: Dr. Dale Gallenberg, dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences (far left); Dr. Brenda Boetel, professor and chair of the Agricultural Economics Department (third from the right); Dr. Sierra Howry, associate professor of agricultural economics (second from right); and Tony Betley, vice president – senior agricultural banker at Nicolet Bank.

Alexis Boston (center) accepts 2021 Agricultural Banking Scholarship from WBF Chair Rose Oswald Poels (far left). Also pictured are: Nicholas Felder, vice president – commercial/ag banking at MidWestOne Bank (second from left); Chad Bahr, assistant vice president – agribusiness lending officer at Mound City Bank (second from right); and Donna Hoppenjan, president and CEO of Mound City Bank (far right).

The WBA Agricultural Bankers Section Board is excited to announce that registration is now open for the annual WBA Agricultural Bankers Conference, which will return in person on April 6–7, 2022 at the Kalahari Resort & Convention Center in Wisconsin Dells.

This year’s conference will help prepare ag bankers for the many conversations that take place between farm client and banker. Whether good times or bad, high prices or low, the perfect weather or the most unusual weather events in history; Wisconsin ag bankers continue to provide those “value-added conversations” beyond the traditional financing discussions.

In addition to the dairy and commodity market outlook sessions that have become staples of the annual conference, attendees will hear from attorney Dan Purtell on the topic of farm transition planning. Each family farm presents unique challenges and opportunities when it comes to transition planning, and Purtell has seen it all. Sharing best practices learned from experiencing the good, the bad, and the ugly, Purtell will also include time for audience Q&A with his presentation.

Farmer Mac economist, Greg Lyons, advises bankers to “ride the bull with a helmet” as he shares his agricultural economic outlook for 2022. Farmers and ranchers are entering 2022 with strong market prices, surging land values, and more cash on hand than any point since the commodity supercycle. This session will cover early indications of 2022 incomes for producers in Wisconsin, as well as what pitfalls could knock this bull market on its heels. How deeply will inflation cut into producer profitability? Can we rely on strong agricultural exports if China is a top trade market?

Will a rising rate environment end land value growth? Lyons’ session will review these and other questions as we seek to answer just how comfortable lenders can be with the current strong state of the agricultural sector. In addition to a great lineup of speakers and presentations, attendees will enjoy the always valuable networking that takes place throughout the conference. An exhibit hall of trusted partners will showcase the latest in ag finance products and services and provide a place for value added conversations during breaks and meals.

Make plans to join your fellow ag bankers in the Dells, April 6–7. You can find more information on the conference agenda, room block details, and more at www.wisbank.com/ag.

By Kevin Krentz, WFBF President

As we turn the page and close the chapter on the year 2021, it is certainly a year of reflection for those of us in Wisconsin agriculture. Coming off of a year that challenged us in more ways that we could count, we came into 2021 with a sense of optimism. As life slowly but surely progressed back to a resemblance of normal, we looked forward to the year ahead.

However, optimism was met with continued concern. Major supply chain disruptions that we first saw as a result of the pandemic in 2020 extended well into 2021, as well. The rising cost of inflation, now sitting at 6.2 percent, deeply hit the agriculture community on everything from equipment to fertilizer input costs. Combined with volatile fuel costs and extensive labor shortages across every industry, the cost of debt continues to rise for Wisconsin farmers.

These concerns are nothing to take lightly. Here in Wisconsin, agriculture contributes $104.8 billion to the state’s economy with over 64,700 farms on 14.3 million acres. When agriculture struggles, we all struggle. When looking at the aforementioned issues, there is a lot of discussion as to whether these challenges are transitory or short-term. However, farmers feel these issues will last well beyond 2022, specifically when looking at things like increased labor rates.

So where do we go from here? Known as the Dairy State and home to 6,700 dairy farms — more than any other state — Wisconsin needs to see change in the dairy markets. We need a market that allows for more products to be priced while creating more transparency within the market and the depooling process.

Additionally, we need to adequately address the labor shortages we are seeing in agriculture — especially within the dairy industry. Agriculture needs an immigration system that works here in Wisconsin and across the United States. This would entail the administration having a strong foreign policy. One that would protect our borders, allow for adequate immigration to fill our job needs and promote agriculture exports across the globe. This would create food security domestically while giving our farmers the ability to compete globally in the climate smart commodity markets. One that we are very well suited for.

Twenty-first century agriculture needs twenty-first century infrastructure. We have an aging infrastructure, and it needs updating. Ports and rail along with local roads help our value-added products make it around the globe. Broadband is essential. Connecting farmers with consumers along with monitoring crops and livestock in real-time takes reliable broadband that will help next generation farmers be successful.

Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s mission is “empowering the Wisconsin agricultural community through our grassroots membership to preserve and promote the advancement of agriculture”. Each year, county voting members set the policy that guides WFBF on local, state and national affairs. Our members look at challenges like these and set policy with the intention of moving Wisconsin agriculture forward.

Our members develop policies that guide us towards viable solutions. It can be beneficial for farmers to look at these operational challenges as opportunities. Knowing their cost of production and having proactive marketing plans allows farmers to remain successful in volatile markets when margins continue to tighten.

Despite these challenges, there is still plenty for agriculture to be optimistic about. Commodity markets provided a renewed sense of optimism in 2021 as we saw inverted grain markets this fall. The rising commodity prices we experienced throughout the fall are a phenomenon we do not typically see and gives farmers a thread of hope moving into 2022.

As we leap into the coming year, it is important to remember that markets still remain volatile. Now is a good time for farmers and their lenders to consider risk management strategies for the next season. There are many variables that farmers cannot control but being prepared, knowing their bottom line and being proactive will help them remain positive going into the new year.

Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation is the state’s largest general farm organization, representing farms of all sizes, commodities and, management styles. There are more 46,000 members that belong to WFBF. Voting Farm Bureau members annually set the policy the organization follows, and are involved in local, state and national affairs, making it a true grassroots organization.

By Lisa Higgins, State Bank of Cross Plains

Volatility, supply chain issues, China, and grit were common topics this year at the American Bankers Association’s Agricultural Bankers Conference.

Dr. Kohl’s advice on how to deal with volatility? Manage the controllables and manage around the un-controllables. Unless you have a crystal ball, risk management is the best thing we can do to combat volatility in the markets. As bankers, the most important thing we can do is structure our deals and accounts correctly to avoid more risk.

Supply chain issues were also top of mind, with the holidays right around the corner and the bullish commodity markets. The resounding response? Not surprising. . . manage risk and mitigate it by adapting. Our producers need to utilize as many marketing opportunities as possible. Senior Director – Procurement of Tyson Foods, Inc. Tom Schaeffer shared a little about Tyson’s “new normal” after the pandemic shut down their plants. He says that companies need to be on the offense now, and shift from efficiency-centric teams to deliver more resiliency and effectiveness. He also noted that most issues are labor related and the will to work, versus an actual shortage of workers. He says to embrace the reactive, embed the proactive and never let crises go to waste.

We heard from a couple of speakers that addressed grit and resiliency. Bonnie Ayars, teacher, and program specialist for Ohio State University gave an empowering talk about leadership and true grit. She said to view grit as not a talent, but who we are internally. She challenged us to find our passion and persevere, and that those two things equal achievement, which is grit.

The theme for this year’s Ag Bankers Conference was “Moving Forward,” but we did a lot of looking back. From revisiting the 1980s farm crisis and volatility, to reviewing the lessons learned from the pandemic, we had a chance to think about where we were and what we have to look forward to. Will history repeat itself or did we learn from our past? One thing is for certain: our industry and our country are full of resilient, gritty individuals, including our closing speaker Travis Mills, retired US Army Staff Sergeant. He is a quadruple amputee, New York Times Best-Selling Author, and founder of Travis Mills Foundation. He shared a few things that he has learned on his journey: 1. Don’t dwell but reminisce on the past. 2. Control your attitude. 3. Never give up, never quit. In my opinion, those three things are a direct reflection of who our farmers are and a parallel to our industry. Good reminders and great advice.

We had some familiar faces who presented, and some new ones who will more than likely become regulars on our Ag Speaker Circuit. One thing is for sure, in-person breakouts and general sessions were a relief to attend, vs Zoom calls or recorded videos.

It was a great to see the speakers and peers in person to ask questions, network and glean a bit of wisdom from.

Higgins is Vice President, Ag/Commercial Banker at State Bank of Cross Plains and serves on the WBA Agricultural Bankers Section Board.

By Craig Rogan, Investors Community Bank

Craig Rogan, Investors Community BankAs the 2021 harvest season comes to an end, a new beginning is in the horizon. As we reflect on the second year of increased feed inventory throughout most of the state for dairy farmers, our producers may be facing a decision on how to best capitalize on excess feed inventory. The farmer, with the help of his team of advisors (nutritionist, agronomist, vet, consultant, banker), may consider the following options:

Should excess feed be sold as another revenue stream?

Does the farmer consider alternative crops such as oats to sell and harvest the straw to sell or keep for their own use?

Can the herd be expanded in existing facilities to increase milk production with more animals on feed?

If an expansion is looked at, be sure to consider whether it will affect a quota with the milk plant or if the milk plant will even take the additional milk.

Does the increase in feed inventory provide an opportunity to reduce cropping costs in 2022?

Feed and cropping expenses increased throughout 2021 and appear to be on an upward trend into 2022. Does the excess feed inventory provide opportunity to save on fertilizer cost, for example, knowing they can reduce spread on the field despite a potential negative effect on 2022 yield?

The importance of making a robust plan with the help of advisors will be a key to success for our farms in 2022. 

As bankers, we can help our customers navigate through making these decisions by providing financial analysis help in working through various scenarios and the impact each has on the client’s cost of production.

As feed and fertilizer cost increase heading into 2022, maximizing this excess feed inventory will be the key to 2022 cash profitability. One notable aspect that can be completed now to assist in mitigating continued rising costs is fall tillage. Future fuel costs are expected to be higher than today and it could be prudent to do tillage along with manure application in the fall. Optimum 2021 fall weather conditions are ideal for completing tillage. By completing fall tillage this will allow for less work, stress and timely planting in 2022. Not completing fall tillage will be a missed opportunity. Communication is the key in any relationship. Continue to work with your customers to be proactive in their planning for the upcoming year.

Craig Rogan is vice president, ag banking officer with Investors Community Bank in Stevens Point and serves on the WBA Agricultural Bankers Section Board of Directors.

Events

A review of the fundamental skills needed to begin to undertake credit analysis, loan structuring and monitoring for agricultural customers. The course also provides guidance on dealing with problem loans. This course was developed in conjunction with the Schools of Banking, Inc., a jointly-owned subsidiary of the Kansas and Nebraska Bankers Associations.

There is no separate textbook for this course. All reading materials are posted online in the Learning Community of your course.

A review of the fundamental skills needed to begin to undertake credit analysis, loan structuring and monitoring for agricultural customers. The course also provides guidance on dealing with problem loans. This course was developed in conjunction with the Schools of Banking, Inc., a jointly-owned subsidiary of the Kansas and Nebraska Bankers Associations.

Audience: Those new to agricultural lending or with limited experience

Price: $475

A review of the fundamental skills needed to begin to undertake credit analysis, loan structuring and monitoring for agricultural customers. The course also provides guidance on dealing with problem loans. This course was developed in conjunction with the Schools of Banking, Inc., a jointly-owned subsidiary of the Kansas and Nebraska Bankers Associations.

Audience: Those new to agricultural lending or with limited experience

Price: $475

Many factors affect the loan structures used in commercial lending, both for commercial and industrial (C&I), and commercial real estate (CRE), agricultural, and other situations. This program provides the four keys to developing the best loan structure, starting with the bank’s goals.

Of secondary, and almost equal consideration, is the customer’s goals. We’ll focus on strategic goals and business life cycle concepts, which often supersede the borrower’s desire to get the lowest interest rate. In structuring a financing arrangement, the banker must have a thorough knowledge of the available credit facilities and how to match them to the customer’s needs (third key) and the anticipated source of loan repayment (fourth key).

This seminar provides bankers with a working knowledge of the basic principles of loan structuring, including:

  • Understanding your bank’s goal(s) in structuring the loan
  • Identifying the goals of your customer and the resulting credit needs
  • Discussing and implementing the products you can utilize
  • Identifying the loan structures that best match the source(s) of repayment

Target Audience:  Small business lenders, private bankers, commercial lenders, credit analysts, loan review specialists, lending managers, and credit officers involved in C&I loans.

Presenter
Richard Hamm, Advantage Consulting & Training

Registration Option
Live presentation $330

Recording available through February 22, 2023