"Hard times hit Yuma in the Dirty Thirties," notes this farm community's official history, published as part of the town's centennial celebration this year. "By 1934, one person in seven in the county was receiving some kind of relief. Two out of three Yuma banks failed . . . the one bank surviving was the Farmers State Bank."
Don Starnes was a child when the Depression and dust storms of the "Dirty Thirties" swept over the high plains of eastern Colorado. But for him, those events are hardly ancient history.
Now mayor and president of that "one surviving bank," Starnes said he is determined to see that the Farmers State Bank of Yuma again survives hard times in farm country.
"It's probably hard for people somewhere else to realize what's going on, because the economy's going strong for them," Starnes said. "But the economy in rural America is not good. Fact is, it's about as bad as it's been since the Depression."
For bankers in rural America, the economic crisis has brought personal and professional pressure unmatched in decades. Daily, men and women such as Starnes find themselves in a vise between their anguish at the plight of troubled farm borrowers and their obligations to depositors, investors and bank regulators.
"It's very -- well, very . . . unpleasant," Starnes said, groping for the right adjective. "It's unpleasant and hard, real hard, when you have to go to a farmer you've known for years and you have to foreclose, take away that fellow's home and his livelihood.
"Fact is, though, we're loaning other people's money -- it's the depositors' money. And you have protect that money, or there's no bank."
The task of serving these conflicting interests has become unbearable for some rural bankers, at least two of whom committed suicide last winter in farm communities, apparently because of job pressure. Hundreds have left the industry. At banking conventions, training sessions on "stress management" are jammed with officers of small country banks.
Most rural banks have managed to protect depositors' money during the last four difficult years. Despite news media attention to failures of some banks, the number of U.S. banks in trouble -- in cities and in farm country -- is a small portion of the national banking community.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation's list of "problem banks," those whose bad loans threaten to eat their equity, included 1,260 institutions in May -- 8.5 percent of the 14,893 banks insured by the FDIC.
To avoid trouble with the FDIC and state or federal bank regulators, country bankers all over have resorted to many of the techniques used here by Starnes to keep his institution profitable while farm land values and farm product prices have plummeted.
The business-school answer to this small bank's problems might be to diversify its loan portfolio, but that is not a realistic alternative. Yuma is a farm town -- a fact reflected on the town's official seal, which includes depictions of a shock of wheat, an ear of corn, a center-pivot irrigation sprinkler and the big cooperative elevator here that can hold enough wheat for 250,000 loaves of bread.
Starnes, as mayor and bank president, said he would "love to bring some light industry into this town." But all efforts have been unavailing, and agriculture remains Yuma's only industry. Starnes' challenge, accordingly, is to keep his bank healthy while serving a sick industry.
Most of the bank's loan portfolio consists of two kinds of farm loans. One sort has a term of about five years for purchase of farm equipment. The other is the traditional one-year "operating loan," in which a farmer borrows in the spring to fund seed, fuel and labor expenses, then repays in the fall using proceeds from the harvest.
Over the last five years, Starnes has markedly changed his loan requirements. "It's no longer just collateral financing," he explained. "Now we're into cash-flow financing. We have to figure out very carefully whether this fellow can meet his loan payments."
To do that, the bank and each farm borrower meet each spring and complete a detailed cash-flow analysis. The farmer estimates, to the dollar, his monthly costs in 24 categories such as fertilizer, irrigation, feeder livestock and mortgage payment. The bank's computer matches this against projected earnings to determine how big an operating loan the farmer will receive.
"We get Joe Blow in here wanting a loan to plant 600 acres, and we have to tell him, 'No, we don't think you can handle more than 300 this year,' " Starnes said. "You know, we're restructuring the man's whole operation."
Some customers no longer qualify for loans. They were informed this spring that they would receive no money to plant this year's crop.
Despite predictions last fall that tens of thousands of farmers would be denied operating loans this spring, the number is evidently smaller. In Yuma, for example, Starnes said he refused operating loans to only about two dozen of the 400-plus applicants.
Like almost every rural bank, the Farmers State Bank has "carried" some troubled farmers for years in hopes they eventually will be able to pay back old loans. "You give that man his operating loan this spring, maybe a little smaller loan this time, even though he's behind on last year's," Starnes said.
Normally, that kind of decision would cause trouble with the regulators. But when FDIC and Colorado examiners were here last month, Starnes said, they were "pretty receptive" to his defense of loans that would not have passed muster five years ago.
The bright spot in this generally bleak picture is that the approximately $45 million in deposits here, tiny by city bank standards, have held steady through recent bad years. "People keep their money with us because they're not going to spend it," Starnes said.
"Fact is, you probably make more on your money now just leaving it in the bank than you would putting it into a farm operation. For a farm community, that fact right there tells you how badly off we really are."