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N.D. Man To Help Farmers

December 25, 2000

MAYVILLE, N.D. (AP) _ Levon Nelson has crafted a unique way to help save family farms.

It’s a tiny program, compared to the federal farm program or state-run agriculture mediation programs. But he said it is reasonably successful.

Nelson formed Partners in Progress in the basement of Ebenezer Lutheran Brethren Church here at a regular prayer breakfast with nine other Lutheran men from several congregations.

That was in 1991. By 1995, the group was formally chartered as a nonprofit. So far, it has channeled more than $2 million in revolving, interest-free short-term loans or other financial help from nearly 50 participants to dozens of farmers.

The members began as people Nelson knew. Now people stop him in the street to donate money. Former clients now are on board, helping other farmers.

Nelson said 270 farmers have contacted Partners in Progress.

Most of them needed a little help, much of it advice given over the telephone. But 69 farmers in financial need have been aided by loans raised by Partners in Progress and the financial advice Nelson provides.

``Those 69 averaged three-quarters of a million dollars in debt,″ Nelson said.

Most of the farming operations would be out of business if not for Partners in Progress, Nelson said, and nearly all the loans have been repaid.

Here’s how it works: Nelson hears of a farmer in financial trouble. He talks to him, and studies the farm operation, trying to develop a plan for profitability.

Often, the situation is dire enough to require some quick and relatively large amounts of cash for the farm to stave off foreclosure and feed the family.

Nelson calls around. He said he often can raise thousands of dollars in hours, based simply on his reputation. Then, that money is repaid within months, usually after the farmer gets loans restructured through negotiations with a lender, brokered by Nelson.

The key to it all, say members of Partners in Progress, is Nelson’s rare combination of practical farming skills, financial acumen and strong faith.

It’s Nelson’s ``wizardry″ at farm financial consulting that makes it work, said the Rev. Don Swenson, Lutheran pastor in Sharon, S.D., a member of Partners in Progress.

``He’s been a real blessing,″ he said.

Ken Hove, a Fosston, Minn., farmer, was a client of Partners four years ago. Now he helps other farmers as a member.

He remembered calling Nelson for some advice about a lender’s plan. Nelson was driving a sugar beet truck while listening to Hove’s financial questions.

``He came back with six options while waiting in the beet truck, and faxed me a sheet,″ Hove said.

Nelson said he is neutral in his negotiations. ``I’m not pro-lender, and I’m not pro-farmer,″ he said.

That helps lenders listen.

``They are simply farmers helping farmers, one case at a time, and it’s a wonderful thing,″ said Duaine Espegard, president of the Bremer Bank in Grand Forks, S.D. ``I call it lending with a heart.″

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