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Published October 14, 2013, 10:54 AM

30 years in the RRV

It was October 1983 when I came to the Red River Valley — 30 years this week.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

It was October 1983 when I came to the Red River Valley — 30 years this week.

I was 26. I had accumulated my agricultural journalism degree from South Dakota State University, in my hometown of Brookings. My father was an agricultural journalist with the SDSU Extension Service. I’d spent four years at the Worthington (Minn.) Daily Globe. Dick Lee, the SDSU Journalism Department head, recommended me as a farm writer and I was hired by Paul Gruchow.

It was a different time.

In 1978, I’d served an internship with the venerable The Farmer/The Dakota Farmer magazine — then based with Webb Publishing in St. Paul. There, at 21, I worked for editor Bob Rupp, an icon in agricultural journalism — pictured in his byline photo on his “As things look to me” column with a pipe in his mouth.

Tom Doughty and Marsha Crowder managed the magazine. Guys like swine/soybean editor Jim Dickrell (later editor/associate publisher, Dairy Today), beef/corn editor Bruce Pankonin (later with Cargill) and dairy/forage editor Neil Tietz (now editor emeritus, Hay & Forage Grower) were consummate professionals. I’ll remember affectionate, efficient critiques from Bob Moraczewski, then editor of Farm Industry News, who served as a stand-out, nationally.

When I started, farmers were still in the go-go 1970s. The so-called “Young Tigers” leveraged themselves into bigger debt that would collapse into ruin by the time I went to work at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.

I remember the foreclosures, the landmark lawsuits to stop them (Who can forget lawyer Sarah Vogel and her Coleman vs. Block suit?) and the Farm Credit Act of 1987, which required the Farm Credit System to write off debt on loans if it would cost more to foreclose on them.

A month ago, I ran into a retired ag lender at the Big Iron Farm Show in West Fargo, N.D. The farm credit official from the three-state region talked about a particular debt write-off of the mid-1980s, and about how common they were, and how necessary. The programs were designed to provide the “greatest net return” to the association and often resulted in 10 to 30 percent write-downs, or even write-offs.

He related a remarkable story about one write-off borrower — a landowner who was also an airline pilot. The man stopped paying his loan. The farm credit association went through foreclosure and all of the notices, and never had a conversation with the borrower.

Subsequently, the pilot would occasionally see his old loan officer in the airport, and they would exchange greetings. One day in the 1990s, the pilot/landowner contacted the loan officer and said he wanted to meet him in a neutral place to discuss paying off the debt he’d walked away from a decade earlier.

The lender says he told the pilot that he had neither a legal nor an ethical responsibility anymore. “We didn’t treat him any different than anybody else but he decided he wanted to pay it back, square things up. He decided not to pay when other farmers who really couldn’t pay were getting write-offs.”

The lender had to contact the Federal Land Bank of St. Paul to determine how this would even work — whether the local association might get a one-half split for any payback. The lender tried to tell the man that repaying the $100,000 or so wasn’t necessary. The pilot’s advisers — a lawyer and an accountant — said he might instead make a donation to his church, equal to the write-off. The man thought differently.

“He paid it in full,” the lender says, the only example like it that he knows of in an 11-state region.

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