Brenda Cooley and Leighton Cooley at Cooley Farms

At age 21, Leighton Cooley signed his first Farm Credit loan to build broiler houses. It was 2005 and he was officially the fourth generation to enter the family business. It’s his plan to pass the business along to a fifth generation.

With the aid of this agriculture-specific lender, the Cooley family is continuing to grow their farm in Crawford County.

“One of the greatest assets is to have a lender that understands agriculture and its importance to the rural economy,” says Cooley, who raises poultry, beef cattle and hay.

Nearly 100 years old, the Farm Credit System proves just as vital today as in 1916 when it began lending to farmers.

The system represents the largest agricultural lending network in the nation, and it remains a critical component to keep the machine of commerce moving in modern-day Georgia agriculture, the state’s No. 1 industry in jobs and economic activity.

A vast majority of Georgia farms of all sizes and types rely on lending services to operate and grow their capital-intensive farms.

In fact, total loan volume for the entire Farm Credit System in Georgia exceeds $2.2 billion, says Rhonda Shannon, senior marketing specialist for AgGeorgia Farm Credit.

“Agriculture is a different kind of profession, and you need someone to understand the way agriculture operates,” Shannon says. “The Farm Credit System provides farmers operating capital so they can continue with daily routines to get products produced, and it is important to our economy. With these people being local producers, their money goes right back into the economy, so it’s basically sustainable agriculture.”

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Cows at Cooley Farms in Roberta, Georgia, Crawford County.

Investing to Keep Ag Growing

Congress established the Farm Credit System to provide a reliable and fair source of credit for the nation’s farmers and ranchers. The system serves only agriculture and operates as a borrower-owned cooperative, Shannon says.

In Georgia, Farm Credit includes three associations with 177 employees and 38 offices that operate territories throughout the state: AgGeorgia, AgSouth and Southwest Georgia Farm Credit.

Each association provides financing for land, equipment, buildings, operating expenses and more to help ensure farm success, says Christy Smith, marketing director for AgSouth Farm Credit. The system also offers leasing and insurance to help farmers protect their investments.

“Unlike traditional lending with monthly payments, we offer loans based on when our farmers get their payments,” she says. “Farm Credit was organized to meet a specific lending need for farmers, and our loan plans and payment schedules are designed with that in mind.”

As a cooperative, each Farm Credit association’s member-elected board sets direction and influences profitability, which is shared among member-borrowers. In 2014, the three Georgia associations collectively distributed more than $31 million in cash patronage refunds, Smith says.

Young Farmers Good for Georgia ’s Future

Support for the next generation is a key focus for Farm Credit, Smith says. The associations throughout Georgia advocate for agriculture. They participate in outreach programs such as AgSouth’s award-winning AgAware program to educate the public about agriculture.

The associations also provide free workshops for young and beginning farmers. The sessions help them form business plans, teach about the lending process and provide guidance on marketing and record keeping.

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In that spirit, Farm Credit offers special loans for several categories of young and beginning farmers. The loans often require less collateral and lower down payments than typical loans. The Georgia associations also award scholarships to students who major in agriculture.

“Supporting the next generation of farmers is a strong focus for Farm Credit,” Smith says. “It’s what we were created to do, and it’s our passion.”

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