While COVID-19 safety concerns meant the 37th installment of Clemson Extension’s annual Southeast Ag Lenders School was held virtually for the first time, attendees said the conference still succeeded at making them better informed of the decisions farmers are facing in the coming year.

The conference was just another example of how South Carolina farmers and Clemson Extension have adapted to this year’s difficult circumstances.

“Having attended the SEALS conference in person in 2019, I was excited to participate in the virtual session being offered this year,” said Emily Duckworth of Farm Credit Mid-America. “It can be difficult to stay focused in Web-Ex meetings, but the team of presenters did a great job engaging the participants with relevant topics, chat sessions, polls, and case studies. Each presenter demonstrated their passion and knowledge for the topics they covered and provided tangible information that I can use as a financial officer.”

Normally held in the spring at Clemson’s Madren Center, the Southeast Ag Lenders School (SEALS) aims to educate agricultural lenders and producers on the factors currently affecting farmers and to bring them up to date on new techniques and new thinking about agriculture.

Of the 93 people who registered, 85 were online at one time in the event, and Clemson Agribusiness Extension Associate Scott Mickey said the attendance was a pleasant surprise given that the event was initially postponed and then changed to a virtual meeting.

“We had really good participation with over 90 percent of registrations attended. Several more watched the recorded version of the school,” Mickey said.

Those in attendance included Farm Credit Mid-America, AgSouth Farm Credit, Central Kentucky Ag Credit, AgFirst, commercial banks, Extension agents from Clemson University, the University of Kentucky and the University of Tennessee, as well as farm management consultants and 12 farmers.

The lineup of speakers and experts included David Kohl (Virginia Tech/Ag Finance), Steve Isaacs (University of Kentucky/Farm Management & Leadership), Scott Mickey (Clemson University/Farm Finance), and Eric Snodgrass (Nutrien Principal Meteorologist), as well as Joe Outlaw from Texas A&M University on the program to share his analysis of the 2020 elections. Participants also worked through a COVID-19 Financing case study.

“What was unique about this lenders school is that David Kohl said this was one of the first lenders school where there was a cross-section of lenders, producers and others involved in agriculture. We were able to do that because the school was virtual and held in the fall,” Mickey said.

For those who had attended SEALS in previous years, such as Jimmy Stott of Harvey Fertilizer and Gas in Kinston, N.C., the virtual nature of the event did reduce the ability to interact with speakers, but the conference remained informative.

“I feel this school is terrific and very informative,” Stott said. “This is my second time participating, the last was in person at Clemson and this one being virtual, but this was still very informative. I thoroughly enjoy Dr. Kohl. He certainly can keep you engaged and thinking at all times and is very knowledgeable on a vast array of topics.”

“I hoped to learn different approaches to financial situations, and I did,” Stott added. “All the speakers give you a different way of looking at different topics than the way I would look at them personally. I actually look forward to being able to attend in the future in person.”

Topics included an economic outlook, mental health and financial stress, and general farm accounting — or what is known in the industry as managing FLOID (family living, operating expenses, interest and debt service). Snodgross gave an update on weather and its potential effect on farms in the coming year.

There was also a session on Business IQ, or management skills, and characteristics of successful farmers, as well as a post-election analysis based on the results of the 2020 U.S. Presidential election and its impact. The school closed with a question-and-answer session moderated by Patrick Kerrigan of Farmer Mac, which is committed to helping build a strong and vital rural America by increasing the availability and affordability of credit for the benefit of American agriculture and rural communities.

“The benefit to a farmer is that the lenders and the people who participated have a much more rounded view of what is involved in production agriculture,” Mickey said. “So, yes, the ag lender could still make them a loan, but they understand better from the farmer’s seat how he’s looking at some of the same numbers that they’re looking at from the lender’s seat. So you’ve got somebody with a better understanding of how the farmer is making decisions and what may be driving some of the decisions they make.

“Secondly, the school aims to give farmers more ideas of how to evaluate a loan besides just a tax return. What are some of the management characteristics that indicate better performance? What are some of the concerns you have when you do the ‘what if’ scenario on a loan. So, the benefit to farmers is just having a better-educated lender that they can work with.”