Many agriculture lenders are increasingly chained to their desks, spending less time down on the farm with customers.

"It's gotten harder the longer I've been here," said David Crawford, vice president of Guaranty State Bank and Trust Co, Beloit, Kan. "I keep working with more and more borrowers."

That's why banks such as $69 million-asset First National Bank of Barry, Ill., have hired full-time staff consultants just to assess and meet with farm loan customers.

"There have certainly been efforts by the smaller banks to keep up with the individuals, particularly given their experience during the '80s," said Arthur Barnaby, a professor of agriculture economics at Kansas State University in Manhattan.

Nonlenders focusing solely on farm customers could benefit agricultural banks, Mr. Barnaby added.

"Most banks are reducing the number of loan officers, trying to get efficient," he said. "That means that probably a lot of the nitty-gritty analysis that they have done in the past is constrained. The loan officer can look at more cases if he's got more documentation that he trusts."

And while the strategy makes sense, some lenders think the cost of hiring a full-time consultant might outweigh the benefits.

Mr. Crawford, a former farm consultant with the Kansas Farm Management Association who spends all his time either making agriculture loans or consulting with farm borrowers in areas like farm marketing and accounting, isn't sure about the need for an additional employee.

"In theory it sounds pretty great," he said. "But from a practical standpoint it's pretty hard to implement. If you're the one making the farm visit and making projections, you know better than anyone else the intricacies of their business.

"With the smaller bank, it would be real tough for them to get the kind of person that they want (and) pay them what it's going to take to get them."

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