C.D. (Charlie) Bennett isn't an elected official and he doesn't make headlines, but he just might be the most important man in Breckinridge County, Ky., these days. He is the country banker who makes the loans that keep farmers going.
His Farmers Bank, as appropriately named today as when it was founded in 1902, is one of more than 5,000 rural banks that hold about $80 billion of agricultural debt -- a third of what American farmers owe.
Unlike many of its sister institutions farther west, Grain Belt lenders that are in trouble because of farmers' low prices and declining land values, Farmers Bank in Hardinsburg is in relatively good shape, due in part to the area's more diversified agricultural base. But in almost every other sense, the Farmers Bank is the prototypical country lending institution.
The rural bank is one of the engines that keep agriculture running. Or doesn't. When things go bad on the farm, things go bad in the neighboring town and things go bad at the country bank.
Reflecting the recession in the agricultural heartland, more than a dozen of these banks failed last year, as the ripples reached out and rolled over businesses that prop up and supply the farmer. Federal bank regulators predict that more than 100 will topple this year.
Bankers such as Bennett, farm-state legislators, governors and farmers warn that, unless strong action is taken, there will be devastation in rural communities that rely on agriculture and repercussions throughout the economy.
"This country was built on rural people," Bennett said the other day. "If we let rural America suffer, people not only leave the farms. They have to go somewhere and they have to do something. This could mean an even heavier drain on society . . . . I can see what's happening now in rural America costing us billions down the road -- we're going to have social programs no matter what the administration says and they are going to cost money."
The Reagan administration, under pressure from farm-state legislators and the banking industry, has reacted with a debt-restructuring program aimed at helping many farmers find a way to finance spring planting. But critics, including the bankers, say the plan is unlikely to work.
Agriculture Secretary John R. Block, among other administration officials, says the recently reshaped program will work if given a chance. But, he also has said repeatedly, banks must share more of the burden if financially strapped farmers are to make it through 1985.
Bennett's bank, with about 60 percent of its loans made to farmers, already carries a sizable load. Farmers Bank makes year-to-year operating loans at 12 percent, a rate lower than normal, "because the profit is not there in agriculture and the farmer just can't pay."
Beyond that, Bennett said, "We have forgone interest for this year so farmers can put in a crop. That's just a fact of life in rural America. The people are as honest as the day is long and they'll pay it back when they can."
That means, of course, that the bank's earnings go down. Or it means that other customers must subsidize the borrowing farmer by paying higher rates on their own loans. And it means there is less money available in the general loan pool.
Most of Farmers Bank's capital comes from local depositors and most of its loans go to local people, principally farmers who rely on it for yearly operating funds.
When a local business wants to expand, it goes to Bennett for money. When the fertilizer company, the implements firm and the seed dealer need to buy supplies, they see Bennett.
The country bank is so reactive to local situations that at Farmers, for example, most of the agricultural loans are timed to coincide with tobacco farming, a major source of income for Breckinridge County farmers. Most of the tobacco loans -- to small farmers who borrow between $5,000 and $10,000 yearly -- come due after the burley auctions in late fall.
Now, as these farmers prepare to plant, they line up to see Charlie (like most country bankers, he's on a first-name basis with his customers) for operating money. Bennett and his staff base their decisions on farming ability and likelihood of repayment. Often, a mere handshake seals the deal.
Bennett's bank holds about $30 million in different types of deposits. It must pay for the use of that money, but it also makes money by putting the deposits to work. Much of it goes back out as loans -- all in the area around Hardinsburg. Some of its money is deposited in larger banks, earning interest.
Farmers Bank also has invested about $1 million in bonds of the Farm Credit System, the farmer-operated lending network that -- like the country banks -- holds about one-third of the agricultural debt. As the credit crisis intensified in recent months, financial specialists expressed growing concern about the FCS.
"We invest in those bonds just as many other people do," Bennett said. "There is something about rural America that still is very basic, and a lot of individuals who feel strongly about it buy the FCS bonds. There surely would be another serious ripple effect if we see Farm Credit defaulting. The government would have to go in, no question about it."
As in many rural communities, feeling about the role of the country bank runs strong in Hardinsburg, a town of about 2,100 southwest of Louisville.
When it appeared in the early 1970s that outsiders might buy Farmers Bank, Bennett and some of his friends decided to cut them off at the pass.
There was, naturally, appeal in the idea of making some money. But, to Bennett, there was something else that bespoke the unusual relationship between country bank and country customer.
"We had to borrow money from a bigger bank in Owensboro to get control. But we bought the Farmers Bank to keep it in the community," he said, adding:
"Your rural banker has a feeling for helping rural people. That's why I went into it. I felt I could do something for the community. And we just don't loan money outside of the community."
"We are a part of the community," Bennett said, "and we support all of the local activities. We bought computers for the grade school. We contribute to all the causes. And everyone calls on us for donations. That's the way it is."