For 11 years, Partners in Progress has helped farmers in the Dakotas and northwest Minnesota stay on the land. Farmers, bankers, and retirees all chip in cash and expertise to help farmers climb out of debt. Their motivation isn't money. It's their way of being a good neighbor.
Levon Nelson is a busy man. He works as a loan officer for three banks. He farms 1,000 acres near Mayville in northeast North Dakota, and he works for Partners in Progress.
In the spring of 1991, Nelson was at a prayer breakfast to discuss the tough farm economy. Four farmers in the area needed help. Ten of their neighbors developed a plan, raised some cash and got the four farmers back on track. Nelson says the group called itself Partners in Progress, and its services have been in constant demand.
"Since 1991, about 300 farmers. And (we) find that in every situation there is a workable solution, (we) just need to discover what it is," says Nelson.
Nelson says Partners in Progress doesn't tell people what to do - it helps them plan their way out of debt. The organization offers short-term loans, with little or no interest. The money can stave off foreclosure, or help get a crop in.
Sometimes the choices are difficult. Farmers have to sell off land or share equipment with a neighbor. In some cases they need to plant different crops to generate more income.
Nelson says people in farm country are willing to dig into their pockets and ante up cash to help out.
"More than dig into their pockets - they'll put money on credit cards. They'll do whatever it takes to help a stranger," says Nelson. "Since our beginnings in 1991 we've written loans in excess of $4 million - all of it short term, most of it unsecured. Most of it on a handshake, and most of it interest free - and we've always been paid back."
This program isn't about making money. Levon Nelson says its focus is to help people, because it's the right thing to do. Partners in Progress is a faith-driven program. Nelson says its actions are based on teachings from the Bible. He says farmers who've been pulled out of debt turn around and invest in the program.
Arnold Woodbury is president of Partners in Progress. When land values fell, Woodbury lost most of his equity with the bank.
"I was one of them that was in trouble and contacted Levon. And he come to my aid and we got our problems resolved," says Woodbury.
Woodbury says the group provided counseling and planning assistance in addition to cash. It saved his farm.
"And when you see someone willing to help you with $10, $20, $50,000 in cash, it makes you think a little different and you work hard and get out of it," he says.
Woodbury has crossed the bridge from borrower to lender on a small scale. But not all the participants in the program are farmers.
Bill Lamb, a retired insurance agent, says investing in farmers is a way to pay back an old debt.
"When I was a kid back in the '30s, my parents lost their farm," he says. "A friend had paid the taxes on one-quarter of the land and salvaged my parents' farm. So eventually as I grew up, we were able to buy that land all back again. But this just kind of touched a spot in my heart when Levon said, 'Do you want to get involved and help farmers?'"
Bill Lamb is thrilled at the success of Partners in Progress. But he and others are dismayed there's still need for such a program. Levon Nelson says farmers from as far away as Iowa and Montana have asked for help.
The program has the attention and support of banks and foundations. There's even a new plan in the works - one that would use money traditionally targeted at community development to help farmers dig out from their pile of debt.