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From Farm To City: How ChoiceOne Bank is Championing Michigan Agribusiness

Community Partners

ChoiceOne Bank’s vision isn’t a secret: it’s front and center on its website. “We want to be the best bank in Michigan,” said Adom Greenland, the bank’s chief financial officer. “That means really making an impact in our communities.”

ChoiceOne Bank was established in 1898 as a farm bank, and the bank operates in some of the most diverse and abundant agricultural regions in the United States. Over the years, its footprint has grown to encompass urban areas like Grand Rapids; however, despite being located in a metroplex of roughly one million people, ChoiceOne hasn’t lost touch with its rural roots. The community bank continues to serve towns with fewer than 15,000 residents, where ChoiceOne is often the last bank left standing. At one of its branches, ChoiceOne Bank even has a hitching post, which gets frequent use for tying up horses.

Today, as an agricultural lending partner, ChoiceOne Bank serves hundreds of agricultural businesses in Michigan, from local farms to international distributors that produce everything from apples to asparagus and blueberries to dairy products. In fact, outside of California, Michigan has the most number of agricultural products of any other state in the country.

Prior to joining ChoiceOne Bank as its chief lending officer, Brad Henion worked in both the Chicago and California markets before coming home to Michigan. According to him, ChoiceOne Bank’s farming customers face a host of challenges, including securing labor, paying for equipment, and keeping up with ever-evolving technology—not to mention managing familial succession plans that can stretch back centuries. Despite those realities, Brad and his team are confident that they’re able to meet their customers’ needs.

For example, ChoiceOne knows that unforeseen events, such as extreme weather, can either reduce yields or completely wipe out crops. In those situations, the bank will do things like delay payments for a year, which provides farmers enough time to plant and harvest other crops that can support the earlier payment.

ChoiceOne Bank’s Chief Lending Officer, Brad Henion

Another example of how ChoiceOne has adapted its practices to better meet the needs of its customers is how it lends to apple-farming operations. When an apple farmer plants a tree, they know they won’t get a harvest for four years. In other words: the farmer will have no revenue for four years, just growing costs. Therefore, ChoiceOne developed a loan program where farmers make interest-only payments until they begin to earn revenue. “A lot of banks don’t feel comfortable underwriting the types of inconsistent revenue streams that farmers have,” Brad said, “but we’ve been doing this for 125 years. It takes a bank like us to understand the farming industry, create unique products, and really work with farmers.”

Using Direct Deposits to Sow Seeds of Trust

Many farms in ChoiceOne Banks’ footprint rely on help from seasonal workers who enter the United States legally to assist in the various labor-intensive aspects of agricultural operations. These unbanked workers tend to travel from Spanish-speaking countries in Central and South America, although some come from as far away as South Africa. Beginning around 2015, there was an influx of the number of skilled workers traveling to Michigan farms as part of the government-sponsored H-2A Visa program.

At first, farmers paid these H-2A workers using paper checks; however, that created three problems. First, it was time-consuming for the farmers to manually run and issue physical checks. Second, it was time-consuming for the workers, who had to be bussed in from farms to wait in line at a bank in order to cash their checks. Lastly, given the amount of cash earnings they had on them, these workers were particularly at-risk for losing their seasonal earnings, whether through robberies or scams, in Michigan, while traveling home, or in their countries of origin.

Carrie Olson, ChoiceOne Bank’s Treasury Management Officer

That’s when ChoiceOne Bank saw an opportunity both to serve its agricultural customers and to help build trust in the United States’ financial services industry. In 2018, the bank launched the Growers Program, a deposit program created for ChoiceOne’s farming customers to be able to provide their H-2A visa-holding workers with safe and efficient banking. Through the Growers Program, workers can choose between one of two direct deposit options. The first is a pay card program through a bank partner. The second is a checking account with ChoiceOne Bank. Should they choose the latter, workers get mobile banking access (with no minimum balances or monthly service fees), free electronic statements, and two ATM/debit cards: one for them and one for their family in their home country. Regardless of which option a worker chooses, they also receive access to Spanish-speaking customer service.

Carrie Olson, ChoiceOne Bank’s treasury management officer, has been with the bank for more than 12 years. She helped to bring the program to life. According to her, early on, it took a lot of convincing to get farm workers to try out the program. Despite the fact that she traveled from barn to barn with a bilingual colleague, workers were skeptical of the banking industry. Her and her team, however, remained persistent as they coached workers through the ins-and-outs of direct deposit, where to find ATMs in countries like Mexico, and how to use them. Today, thanks to their early efforts, when Carrie and her colleagues go to a field to present to farm workers now, many of those returning workers from past seasons are doing the majority of the talking. “We’ve really been able to build that trust,” Carrie said. “We’ve taken people from underbanked and impossible-to-bank to fully banked and safer for everybody.”

Growing Empathy Through Spanish-Language Services

Since 2018, ChoiceOne Bank has continued to see measured, linear growth to its Growers Program in a way that very much complements its agricultural portfolio and embodies its mission. ChoiceOne Bank is not only seeing fewer Growers Program accounts go dormant, but more accounts are receiving direct deposits from farms in other states, including Florida and Washington, as seasonal workers move around the country following different planting seasons.

Additionally, investing in Spanish-speaking services for the Growers Program has subsequently helped Spanish-speaking permanent residents in ChoiceOne Banks’ communities who’ve historically struggled to get financial services in their preferred language. For example, the bank has placed an emphasis on recruiting bilingual employees. Also, in years past, ChoiceOne Bank brought in a bilingual Spanish teacher after hours to work with any interested employees. Employees were paid for their time, and many customer-facing team members took advantage of the opportunity to gain those language skills to better connect with their customers.

Going forward, Carrie says that she and her team would like to continue to grow the Growers Program at a pace of a farm-a-year and to develop more bilingual resources to help community members—whether permanent residents or seasonal workers—continue to overcome language barriers. Adom agrees. “Offering these services in Spanish has helped us have more empathy,” he said. “Serving these folks better has helped us serve everybody else. It’s allowing us to better serve our community and be a better community bank.”

Learn More:

  • ChoiceOne Bank
  • CNote is a women-led investment platform that empowers individuals and institutions to invest locally to further economic equality, racial justice, gender equity, and address climate change.

 

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