With a wry smile and a bit of sarcasm, my renegade uncle once told me that he didn't have a credit problem, "the people I owe money to have a credit problem." Well, the failures of more than 200 banks since October 2008 provide some support for my uncle's quip. However, beneath this tattered surface is a surprisingly strong element of the banking sector: the community banks in the nation's bread basket.

These agricultural banks outshine their peers on profitability and credit quality. The return on assets for all commercial banks averaged 0.04 percent in the fourth quarter, compared with 0.76 percent for those with at least one-fourth of their loan portfolios in the agricultural sector. The ag banks also had noncurrent loan rates half that of all commercial banks.

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