When Derrick Clevenger graduated from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln in 2008, he did something that many of his peers struggled to do: he found a job at a bank.

Clevenger is a graduate of the university's agricultural banking and finance tract, a program that started in 2003 and is helping to cultivate the next generation of farm bankers across the Heartland.

"I was incredibly fortunate to have a job right out of college," says Clevenger, now a relationship manager in the Kearney, Neb., branch of the $553 million-asset Heritage Bank. "We were in college when the turmoil was beginning and a lot of my friends ended up just staying another year in school."

Rural areas like those found in Nebraska have long been hurt by the so-called brain drain; the young educated population is drawn to larger cities, leaving its home communities behind to languish.

"We don't typically train our kids to look at our community. We train them to go get a job in places like Omaha or Chicago," says Fred Bruning, the president of the $240 million-asset Bruning State Bank in Bruning, Neb., one of the program's founders.

However, the economic downturn is causing more college kids to consider staying home. Meanwhile, the prospects for agricultural banks are soaring, even as their commercial brethren struggle. Those factors are raising the program's profile and attracting new students, says Ron Hanson, the professor who oversees the major at the university.

The program is believed to be the only one dedicated specifically to agricultural banking, says John Blanchfield, who oversees the Center for Agricultural and Rural Banking for the American Bankers Association. There are roughly 40 students currently majoring in agricultural banking, and all are Nebraska natives. Last May, nine students graduated. This year, 13 are on schedule to graduate.

Those graduates are entering the workforce at the perfect time, Hanson says.

"When you look at ag lenders, a lot of them are from the baby boomer era, many of them are in their late 50s or early 60s," Hanson says. "In the next five to ten years, we are going to see them retire and will be left with a shortage of trained lenders."

Hanson emphasizes the training. Each student is assigned one summer internship at a bank. The position pays a $10 hourly rate, and Hanson says he expects the interns to experience as much of the bank as they can.

A list of suggested training given to the host banks call for the intern to attend board meetings, prepare for examinations and visit borrowers.

Clevenger says the on-site training was a nice augmentation to his in-class work.

"I was exposed to so many areas of the bank," Clevenger says. "You learn things like 'collateral isn't the only thing you can lend on'."

That type of institutional knowledge is perhaps the best lesson for the students. The resilience of farm banks in the current economic downturn has been in part driven by the not-so-dusty memories of the farm crisis of the 1980s.

"The history is definitely covered," Hanson says.

Hanson says he strives to make sure the students have the best experience possible.

"If they had a positive experience the odds are that they are going to return back to banking," Hanson says. "Two-thirds of our graduates are working in rural communities in Nebraska as an ag banker."

The students are all new to banking, Hanson says. Clevenger's family, for instance, runs a farm supply company.

Helping draw the students is a scholarship offered by the Nebraska Bankers Association. Students can receive as much as $6,000. Freshmen receive a $1,000, sophomores and juniors receive $1,500, and seniors receive $2,000.

"We need to provide these students with skills necessary to be return to rural communities and be great ag lenders," says George Beattie, the chief executive of the state's banking group. "The program has been successful beyond my wildest dreams."

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