How a major U.S. farm lender left a trail of defaults, lawsuits

How a major U.S. farm lender left a trail of defaults, lawsuits
By P.J. Huffstutter

HARROD, Ohio (Reuters) – After completing a credit review in a half-hour phone call, a BMO Harris Bank underwriter cleared $12 million in loans for Ohio corn and soybean producer Greg Kruger in 2013.

Kruger had initially asked for a $2 million loan to build a grain elevator. But the Chicago-based bank, one of the largest U.S. farm lenders, ended up selling him a $5 million loan for the elevator and another $7 million to finance crops, machinery and debt consolidation, according to documents in the Ohio foreclosure case the bank filed to seize Kruger’s farm.

When Kruger offered to supply receipts of sold grain and other standard documentation, his loan officer told him not to bother. “‘Don’t worry. We’ll make the numbers work’,” Kruger, 67, recalled the officer saying.

Five years later, after aggressively expanding its U.S. farm loan portfolio, the bank called in Kruger’s loans as corn and soy prices collapsed and the United States was starting a trade war with China. As the U.S. agricultural economy sours and farmers’ financial woes pile up, BMO Harris is leaving behind a trail of farmers such as Kruger who have lost nearly everything.

The bank, a subsidiary of Canada’s Bank of Montreal  has struggled to recoup some of its investments through a slew of bitter legal fights, according to a Reuters review of court documents and bank regulator data, as well as interviews with dozens of U.S. farmers, bankers, and former and current BMO Harris employees.

“BMO Harris did push for growth, and they’ve had some of those deals blow up spectacularly in their faces,” said John Blanchfield, founder of Agricultural Banking Advisory Services, a consulting firm.

The plight of BMO Harris and its customers reflects broader distress in the U.S. farm sector. Farmers are struggling to pay back their loans or obtain new ones. Shrinking cash flow is pushing some to retire early and a growing number of producers to declare bankruptcy, according to farm economists and legal experts.

BMO Harris may yet face more defaults, judging by its high level of delinquent loans. At the end of June, nearly 13.1% of its farm loan portfolio was at least 90 days late or had stopped accruing interest because the lender doubts the money will be paid back – compared to 1.53% for all U.S. farm loans at banks insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). BMO Harris had the highest rate among the 30 largest FDIC banks, according to a Reuters analysis of loan data the banks reported to the regulator.

Ray Whitacre, head of BMO Harris Bank’s U.S. diversified industries unit, said in a statement that the bank’s distressed loans do not represent “the overwhelming majority” of its borrowers’ experiences. The Bank of Montreal and its U.S. businesses have been in farm lending for more than a century, he said. The bank takes a long-term view of helping farmers through “all stages of the economic cycle,” Whitacre said.

BMO Harris spokesman Patrick O’Herlihy attributed the high delinquency rates to the bank’s lending in the upper Midwest, where dairy and grain operators have faced serious financial challenges. Sam Miller, BMO Harris’ managing director of agriculture banking, said the bank is keeping a closer eye on its customers with cash-flow shortages and lending to fewer mid-sized operators. “We have to be more vigilant in underwriting the risk,” Miller said in an interview.

The bank declined to comment on any individual loans or borrowers, or on the prospect that it could face additional defaults based on its delinquency rates.

MISSING COLLATERAL

The bank’s exposure to the farm sector reached a peak of $1.59 billion in 2018. Most other major banks have been scaling back their farm-loan portfolios since about 2015, as prices fell due to a global grains glut, according to the Reuters analysis of FDIC data.

Among the BMO Harris deals that went belly-up was $43 million in farm operating loans to McM Inc, run by Ronald G. McMartin Jr. in North Dakota. The farm filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2017.

BMO Harris secured a $25 million loan with McM’s grain, cattle and other farm crops, along with other assets. McM agreed to use the sale of these crops to pay the bank back, according to a copy of the loan.

During the bankruptcy proceedings, BMO Harris’ attorneys told the court it was unable to locate all the crops backing its loans, alleging that McM had sold some of the crops to pay other creditors first. Court documents also show the bank had not audited some of the farm’s financial statements. An outside consultant later found McM’s accounts receivable and inventory was overstated by at least $11 million, according to court filings. Neither McMartin nor his attorney responded to requests for comment.

Some experts and bankruptcy attorneys representing former BMO Harris customers say the bank issued too many loans for too long that farmers simply could not pay back. The problems, they said, stem from the aggressive practices of some loan officers and a lack of oversight by bank auditors.

Michael and Byron Robinson borrowed $2.5 million in an agricultural loan and another $2.5 million on a line of credit in 2013 through their Indiana businesses, court records show. The bank sued the Robinsons in federal court as part of its foreclosure process in 2016 and later sold the farmland at auction. The property brought far less than the value the bank had estimated the properties were worth to justify the original loans, said their bankruptcy attorney, Maurice Doll.

Michael and Byron Robinson did not respond to requests for comment. Doll said BMO Harris had loaded his clients up with far more debt than they could reasonably pay.

‘DON’T WORRY. IT’LL BE FINE’

The Indiana-based BMO Harris banker working with the Robinsons and Kruger, Thomas “T.J.” Mattick, found his customers through farm magazine advertisements, word of mouth, at church gatherings and from rural loan brokers who were paid a finder’s fee, according to interviews with 10 farmers and one loan broker.

“I thought I could trust him,” Kruger said. “We would talk about church and faith all the time.”

When the Robinsons were looking to expand their corn and soybean operations, Mattick convinced them to buy two new farms instead of one – with BMO Harris financing 100% of the deal, said Michael Morrison, the Robinsons’ farm bookkeeper and a former agricultural banker.

Morrison told Reuters he was concerned by how the bank’s underwriters valued the family’s grain in storage, on the premise that its value would continue to rise – even as grain prices were starting to soften at the time.

“We used to say that T.J. never saw a loan he didn’t like,” Morrison said. “I kept telling them, ‘Don’t do this. Don’t take on the debt.’ But T.J. kept telling them, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be fine’.”

Mattick, who no longer works for the bank, denied that he encouraged borrowers to take on more debt they could pay back. In written answers to questions from Reuters, Mattick said “extensive underwriting and analysis” were conducted on the loans for Kruger and the Robinsons, as with any other file.

Mattick denied telling Kruger that he would “make the numbers work” without standard documentation such as sold-grain receipts. And he said BMO Harris would not have given the Robinson’s 100% financing on their farms unless they pledged additional collateral. BMO Harris declined to comment on Mattick’s statements regarding individual loans and bank policy, and Reuters could not independently verify them.

“I worked with clients to help them determine what they could afford and never would have counseled them to incur debt beyond what they could afford,” Mattick said.

(Reporting By P.J. Huffstutter; additional reporting by Jason Lange and Pete Schroeder in Washington; editing by Caroline Stauffer and Brian Thevenot)

Size matters. Big U.S. farms get even bigger amid China trade war

By Mark Weinraub

HAZELTON, N.D. (Reuters) – As the 2018 harvest approached, North Dakota farmer Mike Appert had a problem – too many soybeans and nowhere to put them. Selling was a bad option. Prices were near-decade lows as U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade war with China weighed heavily on the market. Temporary storage would only buy him a little bit of time, particularly in an area where cold weather can damage crops stored in plastic bags.

So Appert, who farms 48,000 acres (19,425 hectares), cut a check for $800,000 to build eight new permanent steel bins. That allowed him to hold onto his bumper crop and wait for prices to recover.

He sold half of the 456,000 bushels stored on his farm throughout the following summer, earning about $1 more per bushel and avoiding storage at nearby CHS elevators or an Archer Daniels Midland Co. processor in the area.

But most farmers do not have $800,000 to spend on steel bins, and many are going under. The number of U.S. farms fell by 12,800 to 2.029 million in 2018, the smallest ever, as the trade war pushes more farmers into retirement or bankruptcy.

Roger Hadley, who farms 1,000 acres in Indiana, was unable to plant any corn and soybeans this year after heavy rains added to farmers’ woes.

He spent most of the summer trying to plant a combination of grasses, a so-called cover crop, so he could apply for government aid and try again next year.

“The guys that got rich are getting richer,” Hadley said. “It has frustrated a lot of guys.”

In farming, size does matter. The farms left standing after the trade war will likely be some of the biggest in the business. Appert’s operations are more than 100 times bigger than the average American farm and the advantages provided by that magnitude are becoming even more critical as the trade war stretches into a second year.

The declining number of U.S. farmers could hurt the world’s top grain merchants such as ADM and Bunge, who will have fewer suppliers. Additionally, farmers will have less need to rent space in the merchants’ grain silos as big farmers like Appert have plentiful storage on their own farms.

ADM said it would continue changing to meet the needs of its customers. Bunge did not respond to an email seeking comment.

By the end of 2018, the average U.S. farm size rose to 443 acres, a 12-year high and up from 441 million in 2017, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

And the biggest farmers are growing their operations even more as retiring farmers choose to lease their land rather than selling it.

When land becomes available for lease, only the biggest farmers can readily shoulder the costs needed to expand.

The size of the loans smaller farmers would need to buy equipment, for example, are too big for applicants with little collateral, said Dave Kusler, president of the Bank of Hazelton in Hazelton, North Dakota.

“It is almost impossible with what the costs are,” Kuslersaid. “In this area, you can’t make a living on 1,000 acres.”

Critics say the Trump administration’s policy of compensating growers for lost sales due to the trade war pays the bigger farm operations more since payments are calculated by acres farmed.

The Environmental Working Group, a conservation organization, said in a recent study the top 1% of aid recipients received an average of more than $180,000 while the bottom 80% were paid less than $5,000 in aid.

Appert said that big farmers receive bigger outright payments but less per acre than small farms because of a $500,000 cap per farm.

‘BOOM, BOOM, BOOM’

Big farms can reap the full benefits of new high-tech equipment that boosts farm yields.

Doug Zink, who farms 35,000 acres near Carrington, North Dakota, said he likes to trade in his fleet of four combines and planters nearly every year to ensure that his equipment is under warranty, which saves thousands of dollars in maintenance costs and helps avoid breakdowns during key seeding and planting periods.

They also receive deep discounts – as much as $40,000 for some combine harvesters that can cost as much as $400,000 – allowing them to upgrade more often.

Manufacturers are increasingly willing to cut such deals to keep clients as the number of customers falls. Deere & Co <DE.N> said that it will reduce production by 20% at its facilities in Illinois and Iowa in the second of half of the year. Rival agricultural machine makers AGCO Corp <AGCO.N> and CNH Industrial <CNHI.N> have also slashed production to keep inventory in line with retail demand.

Large farms also have the easiest access to capital, with bankers still eager to provide loans to growers with plenty of collateral. “The ag trend is going to larger farms,” Kusler, the bank president in Hazelton, North Dakota, said, “The loans get much larger.”

Appert had no problem getting a loan to finance expansion.

“If you want to get a mortgage and buy a piece of land it is just boom, boom, boom,” he said.

(Reporting by Mark Weinraub; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Marguerita Choy)

U.S. farmers face devastation following Midwest floods

U.S. farmers face devastation following Midwest floods

By Humeyra Pamuk, P.J. Huffstutter and Tom Polansek

WINSLOW, Neb./CHICAGO (Reuters) – Midwestern farmers have been gambling they could ride out the U.S.-China trade war by storing their corn and soybeans anywhere they could – in bins, plastic tubes, in barns or even outside.

Now, the unthinkable has happened. Record floods have devastated a wide swath of the Farm Belt across Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and several other states. Early estimates of lost crops and livestock are approaching $1 billion in Nebraska alone. With more flooding expected, damages are expected to climb much higher for the region.

As river levels rose, spilling over levees and swallowing up townships, farmers watched helplessly as the waters consumed not only their fields but their stockpiles of grain, the one thing that can stand between them and financial ruin.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” said Tom Geisler, a farmer in Winslow, Nebraska, who said he lost two full storage bins of corn. “We had been depending on the income from our livestock, but now all of our feed is gone, so that is going to be even more difficult. We haven’t been making any money from our grain farming because of trade issues and low prices.”

The pain does not end there. As the waters began to recede in parts of Nebraska, the damage to the rural roads, bridges and rail lines was just beginning to emerge. This infrastructure is critical for the U.S. agricultural sector to move products from farms to processing plants and shipping hubs.

The damage to roads means it will be harder for trucks to deliver seed to farmers for the coming planting season, but in some areas, the flooding on fields will render them all-but-impossible to use.

The deluge is the latest blow for the Farm Belt, which has faced several crises in the last five years, as farm incomes have fallen by more than 50 percent due to a global grain glut. President Donald Trump’s trade policies cut off exports of soybeans and other products, making the situation worse.

Soybeans were the single most valuable U.S. agricultural export crop and until the trade war, China bought $12 billion worth a year from American farmers. But Chinese tariffs have almost halted the trade, leaving farmers with crops they are struggling to sell for a profit.

CORN AND SOYBEANS DESTROYED

As prices plummeted last year amid the ongoing trade fight, growers, faced with selling crops at a loss, stuffed a historic volume of grain into winding plastic tubes and steel bins. Some cash-strapped families piled crops inside their barns or outside on the ground.

Farmers say they are now finding storage bags torn and bins burst open, grain washed away or contaminated. Jeff Jorgenson, a farmer and regional director for the Iowa Soybean Association, said he has seen at least a dozen bins that burst after grains swelled when they became wet.

Under U.S. Food and Drug Administration policy, flood-soaked grain is considered adulterated and must be destroyed, according to Iowa State University.

Some farmers had been waiting for corn prices to rise just 10 cents a bushel more before making sales, which would earn them a few extra thousand dollars, Jorgenson said.

“That’s the toughest pill to swallow,” Jorgenson said. “This could end their career of farming and the legacy of the family farm.”

As of Dec. 1, producers in states with flooding – including South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin and Illinois – had 6.75 billion bushels of corn, soybeans and wheat stored on their farms – 38 percent of the total U.S. supplies available at that time, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Iowa suffered at least $150 million in damage to agricultural buildings and machinery, and 100,000 acres of farmland are under water, said Keely Coppess, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

Jorgenson surveyed more than two dozen local farmers to assess the damage and tallied about 1.25 million bushels of corn and 390,000 bushels of soybeans lost just in Fremont County, Iowa, worth an estimated $7.3 million.

EXTENT OF DAMAGE UNCLEAR

The record flooding has killed at least four people in the Midwest and left one person missing. The extent of damage is unknown as meteorologists expect more flooding in the coming weeks.

Early estimates put flood damage at $400 million in losses for Nebraska’s cow-calf industry and another $440 million in crop losses, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts told a news conference on Wednesday.

“The water came so fast,” said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union. “We know our farmers didn’t have enough time to move all the cattle or empty all their grain bins.”

Multiple washouts and high water on BNSF Railway Co’s main lines have caused major disruption across parts of the Midwest, the company warned on its website. The flooding also has disrupted part of Hormel Foods Corp’s supply chain, the company told Reuters.

The roads are so bad that Nebraska’s National Guard on Wednesday will push hay out of a military helicopter to feed cattle in Colfax County stranded by floodwaters, Major General Daryl Bohac said. It is the first time in at least half a century that such an airdrop has been conducted, he said.

Cattle carcasses have been found tangled in debris or rotting in trees, while tractors and other expensive machinery are stuck in mud, unable to be moved. At Geisler’s farm in Winslow, Nebraska, two trucks and a tractor were seen buried in mud in wooden barns where water pooled.

“We should have been getting into planting for next season, but now all of our equipment is flooded and it’s going to take at least three to four weeks to bring back that equipment into shape,” said Geisler.

(Reporting by P.J. Huffstutter and Tom Polansek in Chicago and Humeyra Pamuk in Winslow, Nebraska; Additional reporting by Julie Ingwersen and Mark Weinraub in Chicago; Editing by David Gaffen and Matthew Lewis)

Wind-fanned wildfires threaten to spread in parched Oklahoma

The sun sets through smoke from the Rhea fire on a wind farm near Seiling, Oklahoma, U.S. April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

By Nick Oxford

TALOGA, Okla. (Reuters) – Wildfires which have killed two people in western Oklahoma could spread and more could ignite as wind gusts of up to 50 miles per hour whip an area where scant rain has fallen in five months, fire and forestry officials said on Tuesday.

Several wildfires have begun in the past week, and the largest, dubbed the Rhea Fire, began on Thursday. By Tuesday it covered nearly 250,000 acres, in western Oklahoma, and was only 3 percent contained, said Shawna Hartman, spokeswoman for Oklahoma Forestry Services.

That fire last week consumed the home, barn and half of the small herd of cattle of Larry Lynes, 66, and his wife, Arlinda, 64, who live near Taloga, Oklahoma.

Larry Lynes sifts through the ashes of his bedroom at his home that was destroyed by the Rhea fire near Taloga, Oklahoma, U.S. April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxfor

Larry Lynes sifts through the ashes of his bedroom at his home that was destroyed by the Rhea fire near Taloga, Oklahoma, U.S. April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

“We didn’t have any time at all,” Arlinda Lynes said on Tuesday. “So I went in there and got photo albums from when the children were little and som

e papers off the desk.”

Arlinda Lynes said the couple will rebuild, and their small herd is growing again.

“We got a new baby (calf) this morning, which we are going to name Smokey,” she said.

The Rhea fire burns into the night near Seiling, Oklahoma, U.S. April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

The Rhea fire burns into the night near Seiling, Oklahoma, U.S. April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

 

 

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin has declared a state of emergency for 52 of the state’s 77 counties because of the wildfires and critical conditions for more fires to start.

Western Oklahoma has had no significant rainfall in more than 150 days, while the relative humidity is extremely low, said Hartman.

“This presents unprecedented conditions for this part of Oklahoma for sure,” Hartman said in a phone call.

 

There was a “100 percent chance” that a spark would ignite if it flew into the state’s dry grasslands, she said, and any fire would spread rapidly because of the high winds.

Later on Tuesday, new flames sprung up south of the western Oklahoma town of Seiling, Hartman said.

Ryan Barnes, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Norman, Oklahoma, said relief was several days away, with the heaviest rains forecast from Friday night into Saturday morning.

The Rhea fire burns through a grove of red cedar trees near Seiling, Oklahoma, U.S. April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

The Rhea fire burns through a grove of red cedar trees near Seiling, Oklahoma, U.S. April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

A woman who was trying to evacuate from her residence was killed when flames from the Rhea fire burned the car she was driving, Hartman said. Local media reports said her body was found on Saturday.

A separate fire in western Oklahoma killed a 61-year-old man last Thursday, Oklahoma fire officials said.

(Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Editing by James Dalgleish and Cynthia Osterman)