First Citizens BancShares of North Carolina is looking to reap where it has sown.

Playing off its rural roots, the $8 billion-asset bank based in Raleigh, N.C., sees North Carolina and Virginia as fertile ground for agricultural lending and private banking services.

The company has promoted eastern North Carolina lender Rick T. Holland to regional vice president in charge of agribusiness development and is hiring six to 10 specialized lenders to work with him.

The group also will act as liaison between agribusiness clients in Virginia and North Carolina and private banking representatives to offer estate planning, asset management, and international trade services. Products and services specifically designed for agribusiness customers are part of the program as well.

"We hope to identify ourselves by having specialists who understand the unique needs of agribusiness and who can also bring the ancillary services," Mr. Holland said. "We want to bring a fully integrated package of products and services to agribusiness."

First Citizens' agricultural push helps differentiate it from its North Carolina banking competitors: BB&T Corp., NationsBank Corp., First Union Corp., and Wachovia Corp. While many regional banking companies are shunning rural banking operations, First Citizens is trying to expand its presence in small communities.

"This is a sea change for us in terms of our market dedication to this area," said Christopher T. Boubin, a First Citizens spokesman.

First Citizens' move comes as agriculture is growing rapidly in North Carolina. Led by swine production, farm revenues totaled an estimated $7.8 billion last year, up from $6.8 billion in 1995 and $6.4 billion in 1994, according to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture.

"Ag lending is big business in North Carolina. And that is certainly part of (First Citizens') repertoire," said Thad Woodard, president of the North Carolina Bankers Association.

In beefing up its agriculture lending, First Citizens will build on a $116 million farm loan portfolio, which puts it among the nation's 50 largest farm lenders. Only NationsBank and First Union have larger portfolios in North Carolina and Virginia.

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