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Published March 21, 2008, 12:00 AM

Bankers say farm income up amid stagnant economy

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - A survey of rural bankers in 10 Midwestern and Plains states says economic growth fell to a record low over the past month.

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - A survey of rural bankers in 10 Midwestern and Plains states says economic growth fell to a record low over the past month.

The overall economic index for the region declined to 46.3 in March, from the nearly two-year low of 50 measured in February. An index greater than 50 indicates growth.

The index has not fallen as low as 46.3 since the survey was first taken in 2005.

The survey includes Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. The average community population covered in the survey is about 1,300.

Bankers said record farm income for much of the region continues to drive farmland prices higher.

``Land prices on the high end of the market have almost doubled over the past year,' said Scott Tewksbury, CEO of Heartland State Bank in Edgeley, N.D.

March's survey asked the bankers about farm costs, which continue to rise on high commodity and energy prices. More than 60 percent of bankers reported inputs rising more than 15 percent, while most others said they've grown by 5 percent to 15 percent.

Retail sales rose slightly to a still weak 40.3, from February's 38.3.

Job growth declined for the third month in a row, with a March new hiring index of 42.5, down from February's 44 and January's 46.6.

March's home sales index fell to 25.8, from last month's 26.7.

The farm equipment sales index was a very strong 72.5 in March, down slightly from 75.4 in February but up significantly from 54.3 in March 2007. The month's farmland price index was 78.1, down slightly from February's 79.2.

Bank indicators were mixed for March. Farmers pushed loan volumes up, to 54.5 from 47.5 in February. Checking deposits declined to 61.2 from 67.5 in February and 70 in January. Certificates of deposit and other savings instruments dipped to 51.5 from last month's 57.5.

A Creighton University economics professor, Ernie Goss, and Bill McQuillan, chief executive officer of City National Bank in Greeley, Neb., created the monthly survey of rural bank presidents and chief executives.

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