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Looking back on 40

December 17, 2009
By Deb Gau

MARSHALL - Farming looked different when Dallas Dammen started a career in agricultural finance in the summer of 1970. At that time, Dammen said, most farm operations were independent, and farmers simply sold their crops after harvest.

"One dollar for a bushel of corn was commonplace. Today, there's such a fluctuation" in grain prices, said Dammen, now regional vice president of United Farm Credit Services. "Marketing has become very important."

But while there have been major changes both for farmers and for lenders over the last few decades, Dammen said, some things, like the importance of agriculture and the people working the land, haven't.

Article Photos

Photo by Deb Gau

Dallas Dammen pages through a scrapbook that staff members at United Farm Credit Services in Marshall put together for Dammen’s retirement. Dammen has been a part of the financial cooperative since 1970.

Dammen grew up on the family farm near Walnut Grove, and although he thought he would become an ag teacher after college, he took a job as a "field man" at what is now United FCS' Litchfield office. Dammen will be retiring at the end of the December - 40 years and 16 job titles later, he said.

Agriculture has gone through some big changes in his time, Dammen said. Some of the first shifts away from a more stable market started in the mid-1970s. "The government got more involved" as well, he said, with subsidy programs.

The farm crisis in the 1980s triggered more big changes, especially in agricultural finance.

"It was a difficult time," Dammen said, a "perfect storm" of high interest rates, income deterioration and falling land values. Both farmers and lenders struggled. "As a farm boy, I had to do some things that made the hair on my neck stand up."

Partly as a result of the crisis, the process of getting farm loans changed, Dammen said. Now there tends to be more caution to protect farmers and lenders.

"We do more evaluation of cash flows. It isn't collateral that pays a loan," he said. "There were also changes in structure. We used to be the appraiser, we'd do analysis, we would be the loan closer." Now, he said, there's more separation of services.

Some of the continued changes for farmers included contracting production out to help mitigate risks. For example, Dammen said, in the 1970s, "Up in Willmar, all the turkey producers were independent growers. Today, I don't know if any are independent growers, they're all under contract. We're seeing more of that with hogs and cattle."

United FCS has gotten bigger in 40 years, too, Dammen said. For example, the credit services cooperative went from employing six loan officers to 44, spread over a territory of 22 counties. Loan values have also increased by millions of dollars. Dammen said technological changes have helped make the growth not only possible, but necessary.

"Technology drives it," he said. "When I started out you had to know how to calculate accrued interest by hand. We used to share a 10-keyboard electric adding machine." It would be too time-consuming to do today's volume of work without computers, Dammen said.

Technology has also driven a lot of changes in the field, Dammen added. "When my dad was farming, if you got 70-bushel corn, that was really good. Now we have 200-bushel corn."

While there's better technology and higher yields, Dammen said farmers are now having to use more business savvy, and invest in more capital too. The newest generation of farmers seems to understand that well.

"I think they understand it takes a lot of capital. In the earlier days, it was more labor," Dammen said. "Today, maybe it's working smarter, not just working harder."

The experience of working with farmers and United FCS staff have been the most positive part of his career, Dammen said, and it looks like there will continue to be good people at work into the future.

"The best part has been being close to agriculture, and getting to work with good farmers and staff," he said.



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