The latest tool on farmers.gov helps take the mystery out of the loan application process.
Capital is critical when it comes to maintaining the viability of America’s agriculture and farmers across the nation depend on direct loans from the Agriculture Department to fund and boost their business operations.
To support producers in identifying the Agriculture loans that best meet their specific needs, the agency launched a new Farm Loan Discovery Tool through farmers.gov Wednesday.
“From a personal standpoint, obtaining a loan for a lot of folks can be intimidating and the process is possibly borderline confusing,” Farm Service Agency Administrator Richard Fordyce told Nextgov. “So this intuitive new tool helps answer questions and makes our potential borrowers more comfortable and more prepared.”
A fourth-generation farmer, Fordyce has faced the challenges producers experience in funding their efforts firsthand. He explained that though it can be a convoluted process to apply, the 2018 farm bill increased fiscal limits on several of Agriculture’s loan products. Compared to this time last year, Fordyce’s agency has seen an 18% increase in the amount that is obligated for direct farm ownership loans, meaning farmers could see more funding available in the future.
The agency hopes this new tool will leverage technology to make the entire loan application and approval process less daunting for its customers.
The tool can be accessed through the agency’s farmers.gov site, the department’s go-to online resource for farmers and ranchers across America. Chad Sheridan, chief of USDA's Service Delivery and Operations, and instrumental in the development and rollout of farmers.gov, said the whole journey to offer a farm loan tool on the site started with the idea that farm loans should be as accessible as commercial credit loans and simple mortgage-type loans.
“We are all used to operating in a digital environment with those kinds of things,” Sheridan said.
After completing a series of five questions via the tool, farmers and ranchers will receive specific answers and resources on how to prepare to visit their local service centers, as well as step-by-step insights on what to expect through their farm loan journey, and materials to help them get started with their loan application.
The tool covers youth loans, microloans, farm ownership loans, farm operating loans and guaranteed loans, which farmers use to cover a variety of expenses including buying new land to expand their operations, investing in new equipment, or purchasing seed or livestock.
Insiders said the tool is not meant to replace one-on-one interactions that customers experience at their service centers, but it is instead meant to enhance those encounters by providing farmers with all the baseline information they need before meeting with loan officers to complete their applications.
This is expected to be particularly helpful for new customers hoping to identify and apply for the right type of loan for their farm or ranch, or those working with Agriculture for the first time.
“Our goal with this tool is to make producers feel more comfortable—and more informed—as they consider and apply for an FSA farm loan,” Elizabeth Creech a representative from USDA’s External Affairs Division told Nextgov. “If this tool can make the farm loan process feel more transparent and approachable for producers looking to us for funding support—if we can answer those first few questions and help them feel more confident and informed—I will absolutely consider this a smart investment.”
And much like the evolution of farmers.gov, the agency’s motto “for farmers, by farmers” strongly influenced the conception and buildout of the tool, with improving customer service placed at the forefront of the entire decision-making process.
“The secretary demands that we deliver exceptional customer service,” Fordyce noted.
“And we wanted to make a concerted effort to get the input of our regional and field offices and our customers before we went out and built something that we thought was the right answer,” Sheridan said.
In cooperation with Agriculture, members of the General Services Administration’s Customer Experience Center of Excellence team conducted field research with customers and employees to ensure the creation of the tool would be informed by those who would use it most. They traveled across eight states and spoke to more than 100 producers and Agriculture staff members to adequately grasp the unique experience of applying and receiving a direct farm loan.
Their findings informed the Farm Loan Discovery Tool as a whole.
Sheridan noted that the team initially thought customers wanted the ability to completely apply for a loan online, but they learned through research and journey mapping that most users instead wanted new capabilities that would enable them to access information that would simplify the entire process and reduce the burdens that come with it.
“It’s been eye-opening—we are really walking the walk,” Sheridan said. “A lot of times, we talk the talk and we go out and get feedback and then don’t do anything with it. With farmers.gov, we are starting to see in everything we do, and especially in the farm loans journey, that we are walking the walk and we are going after the things that our staff and producers have said ‘this is really going to make a difference for us.’”
The agency also plans to add new functionality and capabilities to farmers.gov going forward. They’re considering enabling self-service for farm loans, planning new releases around disaster programs and new document management and electronic signature capabilities so that farmers don’t have to leave their farms to chase down different administrative functions.
“We’ve got a huge portfolio of programs that, as we continue to evolve and farmers.gov continues to mature, we’ll start putting additional things for more of our customers to participate in and I think that's really exciting,” Fordyce said.
The administrator also further emphasized the department’s efforts to set an example for modernization across government—and for him, it’s personal.
Fordyce explained that his father is 87 years old, he is in his mid-50s and his son is 23. He said his father would flat out “refuse” to use new technology like the loan discovery tool, and he could go either way, using the tool remotely or meeting with an officer in person.
“Not to discount myself or my dad’s generation, but the one I think that’s most important is the future. The future of agriculture and the future of this industry—our current and future customers—they not only want these digital services, they demand them,” Fordyce said. “So we need to think about who we are going to be serving in the future and making plans for that now.”