Banker on the Range

By Kari Barbic

Ranching isn’t just another line of business to Heather Malcolm: it’s in her blood. “Agriculture is what makes the world go ’round in my opinion,” says Malcolm. It’s also the number one industry in her home state, Montana. Malcolm is vice president of ag lending and a commercial loan officer at Bank of the Rockies in Livingston, Mont., and a sixth-generation cattle rancher. Having grown up on a ranch just outside of Livingston, Malcolm knows first-hand the unique challenges her rural customers face.

“It was very important to me to return to my community and serve the people here,” says Malcolm. She says her ranching background has been helpful in connecting to her farmer and rancher customers and building trust. “If I can talk to them about the details of their farms and ranches and understand the decisions they’re making each day, they‘re more accepting of the relationship we’re trying to build,” she says. “Farmers and ranchers know their businesses and they can see right through someone who doesn’t.”

As the oldest bank in the state, Bank of the Rockies has worked long and hard to build that kind of trust throughout its branches. Locally owned and operated, Bank of the Rockies has been helping Montana’s farmers and ranchers start up and keep their businesses running strong for more than a century. Malcolm works with a variety of farmer and rancher customers—from traditional operations to specialty farm-to-table businesses—helping them choose lending programs that best fit their business models. Farmers and ranchers depend on loan offerings that give them flexibility to address their long- and short-term needs, such as lines of credit, livestock and equipment term loans and ag real estate loans. “Farm and ranch lending is not cookie-cutter,” says Malcolm. “Each operation is different and I need to tailor the loan to fit the borrower‘s needs and operation to give them the best chance at success.”

Rancher customers like Casey Coulter depend on this delicate balance of flexibility and reliability. “Farmers and ranchers rely on even-keeled lenders with a consistent credit philosophy. We need to know what to expect and what our financial partner is thinking,” says Coulter, a cattle producer who’s been working with Malcolm as a customer at Bank of the Rockies for seven years.

Malcolm and her team understand the ins and outs of life and work on the farm. “Heather has a great understanding of agriculture—in all its facets,” says Coulter. “As a loan officer, you have to be available to contact almost any time, and give an honest and educated opinion about business deals—and that’s just what she does.”

Field work
Malcolm understands agriculture so well because she is out in the field most days herself—in addition to her full time work at the bank. She can be found most evenings and weekends at her family’s ranch, feeding cows and doing chores alongside her nieces and nephews. “I love seeing my nieces and nephews get out there and learn how important agriculture is,” she says. “They can get their hands dirty and see all that goes into raising a quality product.” Malcolm has a real passion not just for the agriculture industry but also for helping the next generation of farmers and ranchers get their start.

Bank of the Rockies begins investing with tomorrow’s farmers and ranchers through Ag Youth Savings Accounts and special loans tailored to fit 4-H and FFA projects. These future farmers can get partial financing for animals and expenses needed to complete their breeding and market projects. “It’s all a part of teaching kids how businesses come together and what’s involved from start to finish,” says Malcolm. “We expect the kids to contribute their own money so they are personally invested as well. We want them to get a taste of the business side of agriculture, so they get to know the bank as their ally and partner in the success of their business.”

With the average farmer today 57 years old, Malcolm notes that it is imperative to get younger people involved in order “to protect the business of agriculture and keep up with feeding the world.” This is where Bank of the Rockies is ready and willing to step in with helping beginning farmers and ranchers, even though they may have additional risk and tighter cash flow. The bank offers tailored programs to help them get right to the business of farming. Through no-cash-down financing, the bank gives young ranchers the means to start, and helps them make solid plans to ensure the business will make most, if not all, the payments directly off the land.

Likewise, through joint government programs like the Beginning Farmer Down Payment Program, the bank can help customers use special USDA programs to get their businesses up and running. Malcolm spends extra time with these beginning farmers and ranchers, walking them through their budgeting and business plans. “It is truly a joy and a passion for me to help these customers grow their new farms and ranches into successful businesses.”

Heather Malcolm also represents the needs of her bank and others just like it through her work with ABA’s Agricultural and Rural Bankers Committee. Malcolm was appointed to the committee last fall after her service on the planning committee for the ABA National Agricultural Bankers Conference. “It’s such a great opportunity to meet with other lenders from across the country who serve rural and agricultural communities,” says Malcolm. “And we then have a direct link to D.C. as we work with the ABA staff and other lenders to solve the challenges we’re facing at the local level.”

Foremost on the committee’s agenda is tackling the Farm Credit System, Malcolm says. The system of government-sponsored entities often are placed in a lower tax bracket than small banks in the same rural areas. “The government has created an unfair tax advantage in the system, with Farm Credit able to offer lower interest rates and making it difficult for privately owned, local banks to compete,” notes Malcolm. “It’s time we even out the playing field here.” The FCS’ lack of commitment to young, beginning and small producers—only about one in 10 FCS loan commitments are to young farmers—contrasts with Malcolm’s focus on building up the next generation of agriculture.

This challenge will take time and persistence, as Malcolm notes. “In agriculture, the seasons and markets can turn quickly, so we stick with our customers to help them navigate the good years and the bad.” There are no shortcuts or quick fixes in farming or banking, but fortunately, just like her ag customers, Heather Malcolm is not afraid of a hard day’s work.

Kari Barbic is a writer in Washington, D.C.