Kansas bankers are reaching out to rural customers dealing with the emotional stress that accompanies hard times on the farm.

In the past couple of years agriculture producers in parts of Kansas have grappled with drought, hail, and low cattle prices. The turmoil has destroyed lives along with incomes; several suicides have been attributed to financial stress.

So the two Kansas banking groups, along with more than 20 other state trade associations, have banded together to promote counseling services available through state mental health centers and other providers.

"We want to provide services to farmers, ranchers, and small-business owners that are experiencing a stressful time of life," said Wayne Lofton, a director of the High Plains Mental Health Center, Phillipsburg, Kan., who is working with the state associations.

Susan Anderson, executive director of the Community Bankers Association of Kansas, said their rural customers sometimes need to be prodded to seek help.

"Rural folks sometimes are pretty proud, and to park the pickup truck in front of the county health center is not in their frame of reference," she said.

Dennis Deschner, a vice president at First National Bank and Trust of Phillipsburg, is the catalyst for banker involvement in the project. As a director of the High Plains Mental Health Center, he became aware of anxiety among farmers and owners of agriculture-dependent businesses. He informed Ms. Anderson of the situation and suggested they do something.

"We're trying to raise awareness that you're not alone," he said. "The pain is very real but you don't have to go through it alone if you don't want to."

Mr. Deschner and others said ag problems have been concentrated in certain areas and there are signs of improved performance. But the number of bad farm loans is spiking.

In the 1996 third quarter, the amount of Kansas bank loans to farms that were 90 days or more past due was $1.4 million, 472.2% more than at the end of 1995, according to data from Sheshunoff Information Services.

In the same period, the nonaccruing Kansas farm loans jumped 43.8% to $2.3 million, according to Sheshunoff.

Mr. Deschner said the state's ag situation is showing signs of improvement, but some producers, such as cattle ranchers, remain under pressure.

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