Two black farmers' trade groups are worried that a merger of Wachovia Corp. with First Union Corp. or with dark horse SunTrust Banks Inc. would mean less credit for farmers, and are making their concerns known through protests and other means.
The National Black Farmers Association, in Heathsville, Va., brought matters to a head by staging protests June 26 outside the Charlotte, N.C., headquarters of First Union, July 5 outside the headquarters of Atlanta-based SunTrust, and July 19 in Washington at the Federal Reserve Bank's offices.
John W. Boyd, the association's president, said previous deals of this size have left black farmers in the cold. When large banks merge, he said, "they move farther and farther away from rural America and black communities."
His group has threatened to picket Wachovia's Aug. 3 shareholders meeting, when investors are to vote on First Union's offer for the Winston-Salem, N.C., company.
The other group has taken a more conciliatory approach.
Since July 6 the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association has had a series of meetings and conference calls with First Union and is to have another conference call with the company on Thursday. Gary Grant, the group's president, said the talks have been productive.
"It seems the banking community is being more sensitive than we thought," he said.
Mr. Grant said his group and First Union officials discussed changes in how banks deal with small farmers. His group, in Tillery, N.C., wants banks to set up regional or statewide service centers where agricultural lenders can answer farmers' questions. The farmers also want to explore how the banks can help form cooperatives and ensure that they have access to credit.
Mr. Boyd's group held its first formal meeting with First Union on July 16. The company has promised over the next five years to invest in black and rural communities a portion of a $35 billion loan pool it and Wachovia are creating, and he wants to know how that money would be divided, he said.
Mr. Boyd and others also met with officials at the Fed in Washington to ask that it look into the banks' track records of investing in poor communities. Mr. Boyd said Fed officials there told him they would not interfere with the First Union-Wachovia merger plan, but would consider his complaints, especially about access to credit, when assessing future mergers.
Though agricultural finance is most closely identified with community banks, large banks lend extensively to farmers. First Union originated $103 million of small-farm loans in 1999 and ranked sixth nationwide last year in total agricultural loans, with $838 million.
Mr. Boyd said community banks do not make many loans to his members. The federal government, which makes loans after farmers have been turned down by two major lending institutions, is the members' biggest lender, he said.
Mr. Grant said his group's members were not benefiting from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's funding efforts. He said the reason is that the agency emphasizes guaranteed loans through banks and does little to help farmers build credit.
First Union said it views the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association's idea for creating regional outreach centers as a good one. It would provide an opportunity to expand agricultural lending after a First Union-Wachovia merger.
Lenny Springs, the senior vice president of First Union's community development group, said conversations with the association indicate that his company and Mr. Grant's group would probably form two to four task forces. These would look into ways First Union could provide access to credit, education and training about credit to farmers, and technical assistance to the association itself.
First Union is also helping the association write an application to the Department of Agriculture for a grant to conduct co-op feasibility studies. Mr. Springs added that the banking company did not object to the other items on the farmers' list, including the regional centers.
"To be successful with farmers, you've got to have someone who knows the business," he said.
Mr. Grant said the success of the meeting with First Union led him to approach Bank of America Corp., also of Charlotte, to discuss credit access. Company officials were receptive to the suggestion of a meeting, he said, but one has not yet been scheduled.
Mr. Boyd, meanwhile, said that though his group would continue meeting with First Union, it would persist in its protests until it gets answers about how money would be invested in helping black farmers.
"I haven't been promised anything," he said. "I'm not going to stop until I get a resolution."