For the past 11 years, a small, grass-roots organization called Partners in Progress has been helping financially struggling farmers in the American Midwest to stay on the land. Farmers, bankers, and retirees all contribute cash and expertise to help farmers climb out of debt. Their motivation isn't money. It's their way of being good neighbors.
Levon Nelson is a busy man. He works as a loan officer for three banks. He farms 400 hectares near Mayville, North Dakota, and he works for Partners in Progress. In the spring of 1991, Mr. Nelson was at a prayer breakfast to discuss the tough farm economy. Four farmers in the area needed help. Ten of their neighbors developed a plan, raised some cash and got the four farmers back on track. Mr. Nelson says the group called itself Partners in Progress, and its services have been in constant demand. "Since 1991, about 300 farmers [have been helped. And [we] find that in every situation there is a workable solution, [we] just need to discover what it is."
Mr. Nelson says Partners in Progress doesn't tell people what to do - it helps them plan their way out of debt. The organization offers short-term loans, with little or no interest. The money can stave off foreclosure, or help get a crop in. Sometimes the choices are difficult. Farmers have to sell off land or share equipment with a neighbor. In some cases they need to plant different crops to generate more income.
Mr. Nelson says people in farm country are willing to dig into their pockets and ante up cash to help out.
"More than dig into their pockets - they'll put money on credit cards. They'll do whatever it takes to help a stranger," he says. "Since our beginnings in 1991, we've written loans in excess of $4 million - all of it short term, most of it unsecured. Most of it on a handshake, and most of it interest free - and we've always been paid back."
This program isn't about making money. Levon Nelson says its focus is on helping people because it's the right thing to do. Partners in Progress is a faith-driven program. Mr. Nelson says its actions are based on teachings from the Bible. He says many farmers who've been pulled out of debt turn around and invest in the program. Arnold Woodbury is president of Partners in Progress. When farmland values fell in the 1990's, Mr. Woodbury lost most of his equity with the bank. "I was one of them that was in trouble and contacted Levon," he says. "And he come to my aid and we got our problems resolved."
Mr. Woodbury says the group provided counseling and planning assistance in addition to cash. He believes it saved his farm. "And when you see someone willing to help you with $10, $20, $50,000 in cash, it makes you think a little different and you work hard and get out of it." Mr. Woodbury has made the transition from borrower to small-scale lender. But not all the participants in the program are farmers. Bill Lamb, a retired insurance agent, says that for him, investing in farmers is a way to pay back an old debt. "When I was a kid back in the '30s, my parents lost their farm. A friend had paid the taxes on one-quarter of the land and salvaged my parents' farm," he says. "So eventually as I grew up, we were able to buy that land all back again. But this just kind of touched a spot in my heart when Levon said, 'Do you want to get involved and help farmers?'"
Bill Lamb is thrilled at the success of Partners in Progress. But he and others are dismayed there's still a need for such a program. Levon Nelson says farmers from as far away as Iowa and Montana have asked for help.
The Partners in Progress program has received attention and support from banks and foundations. There's even a new plan in the works - one that would use money traditionally targeted at community development to help farmers dig out from piles of debt.