Lenders Conference is going cross-border, as bankers from the United States and Canada compare notes in Des Moines this week. The annual ABA-sponsored conference will give Canadian and American bankers a chance to learn the similarities and differences between their countries' approaches to banking for farmers, as this year's meeting will include members of the Canadian Bankers Association. "There's an international flavor to a lot of the sessions," said Philip M. Burns, president of Farmers and Merchants National Bank, West Point, Neb., the committee's chairman. "Certainly, there's some common issues to both countries." The 43d Agricultural Lenders Conference is "the most different conference we've done in years and years," said John Blanchfield, director of ABA's agricultural bankers division. Part of the reason for the partnership between the two countries' banking associations is the burgeoning interaction between the countries and their farmers under the North American Free Trade Agreement, he said. About 800 people are expected at the conference, according to the ABA, including 160 Canadians. What can American agricultural bankers learn from their neighbors to the north? "Canadians export 53% of everything they grow, raise, or produce, and we're their largest market," Mr. Blanchfield said. "I think Canadian ag bankers have a better perspective of what the opportunities are for international trade. Our guys are mostly focused on the domestic market." In addition, bankers from both countries can meet counterparts who work under significantly different banking structures. The Canadian banking system includes just six giant Canadian-owned banks and 30 foreign-owned banks, Mr. Blanchfield said. Canada has no small, independent banks; the United States has thousands. But Mr. Burns stressed that many of the farm lenders' concerns are similar, regardless of country. "The banking structure is different," he said. But, "those people have the same problems and concerns as far as ag lending. As a banker from Nebraska, it was almost like visiting with a banker from Iowa," talking to Canadian agriculture lenders. "I'm sure a lot of our concerns are the same as ag banking in Canada," he said.

*** Philip M. Burns' small Nebraska bank exemplifies the typical farm- oriented institution trying to succeed in rural America. And for the next year, the president and chief executive of the $70 million-asset Farmers & Merchants Bank brings his experience to the helm of the American Bankers Association's Agricultural Lenders' Committee. "I'm looking forward to next year," said Mr. Burns, a longtime proponent of agriculture and rural development banking issues. "It makes you feel very close to your industry. You get very much involved in some issues that are very central." Mr. Burns, who officially became the committee's chairman for 1995-96 at last month's ABA conference in San Francisco, has longstanding ties to agriculture. Raised on a Kansas farm, he earned a degree in agricultural economics from Kansas State University in 1972. He then joined City National Bank, Atchison, Kan., now United Missouri Bank, and moved to Farmers and Merchants in 1979. In West Point, a county seat of about 3,250 residents in northeast Nebraska, Mr. Burns's bank focuses on farm lending. One of his pet projects on the committee is the trade association's rural development task force, which will look for new ways to make loans in those areas. The group wants bankers to enter new funding markets, such as the Farm Credit Systems, in a manner similar to the Farmers Home Loan Bank system. "Our bank is a good example of that," Mr. Burns said. "We have a lot of ag credits, little turnover and don't make enough home loans to qualify for the Federal Home Loan Bank. It would be very beneficial for our bank and our community if we were allowed to access the funding market."

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