One man's crusade to help cash-strapped farmers

When Theresia Gillie and her husband couldn't pay a farm-equipment loan, they called a man who is quickly establishing himself as the Good Samaritan of the Great Plains.

He charged no fee. He required no collateral or application form, just lunch at a local Pizza Hut and a four-hour interview. On the basis of that, he came up with a debt-reduction plan to save the Gillies' farm - and an unsecured loan to start them on that road.

More remarkably, much of the loan money came from other farmers whom the Gillies had never met. "I remember feeling quite amazed when they gave us $10,000, because I didn't know these people," says Mrs. Gillie, who quickly repaid the debt and is on the road to financial recovery. "I think maybe it's the way things should be."

That's one of the small success stories of a unique faith-based, volunteer program here in North Dakota called Partners in Progress. Spearheaded by Levon Nelson, a rural banker and fifth-generation farmer, it mixes rigorous financial analysis, prayer, and neighborly aid to do what bankers here find increasingly difficult: keep financially distressed farmers afloat in an era of low crop prices and fickle weather.

Financial problems have shuttered many a farm in the Great Plains in the past 20 years. The key to recovery, says Mr. Nelson, a devout Lutheran, is strong faith backed by action. "If it's the impossible deal, the Lord wakes me up at four in the morning and shows me how to do it. If it's just an extremely difficult one, He lets me sleep until five," he quips.

It's not exactly clear when the low-key but energetic Nelson sleeps. If he's not working on his 1,000-acre farm near Mayville, he's at the local bank here in Aneta, N.D., or across the street in his irregularly shaped office next to the Aneta Meat Service. There, with a mounted king salmon overlooking his desk, he cajoles lenders, meets with prospective borrowers, and convinces wealthy farmers to cosign loans with those who have little equity.

Several in the Partners group - including its president, Arnie Woodbury - are former customers who now lend small amounts of their own money to help others, usually without interest. "It's a program literally of neighbors helping neighbors," says Don Swenson, a Lutheran pastor in Sharon, N.D.

Everyone, it seems, has a story about Nelson. There's the time he talked a farmer out of suicide, telling him he needed him to count his cattle for the loan application. When the farmer called back with that number, Nelson sent him out to count his machinery, then the wheels on his machinery - anything to keep him from his gun until Nelson could reach the place. The strategy worked.

Ken Hove, a Minnesota grain and cattle farmer in the Red River Valley, had already been through foreclosure and had the local sheriff sell his land when he heard of Nelson in the spring of 1997. Nelson came and visited, writing out in longhand each debt owed by Mr. Hove (pronounced HO-vee). Racing against the deadline when the foreclosure would become irrevocable, Nelson came up with several ways to raise the $290,000 Hove needed to redeem the land. He worked out a plan in which Hove's son would buy the land. He got Hove to pare down debt and even get a further loan from a local businessman to whom he already owed money. But with time running out, Hove still needed $40,000.

In stepped three landowners who cosigned the note. "It's amazing how there are people in Partners In Progress ... who are willing to do that just on [Nelson's] say so," Hove says. "It isn't that they have faith in me. He says: 'This is going to work.' And it has always worked."

In fact, Partners in Progress has achieved an impressive record, given the poor financial shape of its customers. Since January 1998, some 29 people in the organization have made about 70 loans to farmers, most of them short-term and interest-free. Of those, only one - for $5,000 - has not been paid back, because the farmer passed away.

Of the 300 or so people who have contacted him since 1985, "there are two that I couldn't help," Nelson says. One wouldn't reveal the totality of his farming problems. The other proved unable to make a decision.

Nelson, who graduated from North Dakota State University in 1965 with an agricultural economics degree, started helping distressed farmers in the mid-1980s, when the state began a mediation program to help lenders and farmers work through their problems. When the program ended in 1987, farmers kept coming for help and Nelson kept volunteering his services.

In 1991, a farmer with $1 million in assets but nearly $1.3 million in debt needed a loan to begin planting. Nelson argued with the banker until he agreed to make the loan on one condition: a satisfactory cosigner. "I asked: 'Would $1 million in net worth be enough?'" Nelson recalls. The next day Nelson and four other farmers - worth $4 million - walked in to cosign the note. An idea was born.

"Levon, being a banker himself, knows what's feasible and what's not," says Mike Bannach, a commercial loan officer for Bremer Bank in Grand Forks and the banker for Partners in Progress. "He does bring credibility."

The group has since gotten outside money, including a $200,000 low-interest loan and another $100,000 in grants from the Otto Bremer Foundation in St. Paul, Minn. But most of the money comes from individuals, including Nelson himself, though he is far from wealthy.

Acquaintances marvel at this short, rotund man of Norwegian descent, whose focus and energy seem boundless. "He's got so blame much energy that I could never keep up with him," Hove says. Friends worry aloud over the toll his workload must take on his personal life and family. Yet his dynamism seems unflagging.

"You can 'love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind,' " says Nelson. "But until we put it into action and love our neighbor as ourselves, we have not fulfilled what God asked us to do."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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