Agricultural banks have become stubbornly immune to the fee mania that has swept the banking industry in the last decade.

With their roots in close-knit rural communities - and customer bases that don't react well to being charged for things - farm banks report far less fee income than community banks in general.

And many of the farm lenders with the highest noninterest income per average assets cite extraordinary circumstances rather than an aggressive fee strategy.

As of March 31, 1,739 banks with significant loans in agriculture reported a ratio of total noninterest income to average assets of 0.59%, according to an American Banker analysis of call report data.

At the same time, the nation's 7,916 banks with less than $100 million in assets reported 1.06%, and banks with less than $3 billion in assets reported 1.35%. The differences in fee income between ag banks and all community banks were similar at yearend 1992, 1993, and 1994.

"Most community banks with a predominantly agricultural base simply have few opportunities for fee income," said George Freibert, president of Professional Bank Services, Louisville, Ky. "Farmers are by and large pretty frugal groups and don't avail themselves of services that other consumers would utilize."

Many farm lenders weren't surprised that agricultural banks lagged behind community banks overall in fee income.

"I don't think the ag bank has the opportunity to charge for the noninterest earning items that they do in the city," said Barney Horton, president and chief executive officer of $33 million-asset Farmers Bank and Trust, Atwood, Kan. He said his bank's high 5.37% ratio of fee income to average assets at March 31 was due to an extraordinary item, but he declined to elaborate.

Farmers Bank's noninterest income for the previous three years was in line with agricultural banks overall at 0.53%, 0.55%, 0.42%.

The 22 farm banks with the highest fee income at March 31 averaged 3.10%.

"It's part of our strategy," said Joe Dan Coe, whose Franklin National Bank, Mount Vernon, Tex., had fee income to average assets of 2.89% at March 31 and topped 2% in 1993 and 1994.

The bank does significant guaranteed lending with the former Farmers Home Administration, earning income in three areas: up-front premiums, packaging, and servicing, said the president and chief executive of the $33 million-asset bank.

At Farmers and Merchants Bank of Hill City, Kan., president and chief executive Jerry Hanzlick attributed the bank's 2.25% fee income to average assets for the first quarter and higher-than-average numbers for the past three years to collections on old loans that management got for nothing when it acquired the bank several years ago.

"Ours is probably substantially higher," Mr. Hanzlick said of the fee income. He said the loan collections could continue to pay off for another decade.

But with the usual kinds of account fees, the $25 million-asset bank isn't cashing in, he said. "We do a lot of things free that city banks don't do for free," Mr. Hanzlick said.

Some of the banks with the highest fee income for the first quarter said their most recent figures were due to extraordinary items rather than fee- income philosophies.

Madison-Hunnewell Bank's 5.52% in noninterest income to average assets at March 31 probably was related to the bank's recent purchases of some Resolution Trust Corp. loans, said Linda Wood, vice president of the $10 million-asset Madison, Mo., bank. For the three prior years, fee income as a percent of average assets was 1.19%, 0.89%, and 0.78%.

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