County's largest lender builds more than $2 billion in assets by helping ranchers, vintners flourish

Kenwood grape growers Bob and Fred Kunde started borrowing from American AgCredit 30 years ago.

Now their kids have many more acres in grapes, a 90,000-case winery and a much larger need for credit. But they still do much of their borrowing from the Santa Rosa farm lender.

"Agriculture is cyclic. There are years when it's tough and years when it's good. But they're in it with us for the long haul," said Jeff Kunde, 48, one of five partners at Kunde Estate Winery & Vineyards. Both the winery and vineyards have lines of credit with American AgCredit.

The need to keep up with growing customers is the key reason that 87-year-old American AgCredit, the largest financial institution based in Sonoma County, sailed above $2 billion in assets last year, said Ron Carli. Carli has been CEO since 1982. That makes AgCredit nearly twice the size of the county's largest commercial bank, Exchange Bank.

Farmers and ranchers have been growing, and their needs for capital have also grown - as land prices, building materials and other costs rise. During recent years of low interest rates, loan demand has been particularly strong as farmers tried to take advantage of low-cost credit.

"Agriculture is getting more diverse and more vertically integrated. Customers are getting larger as a whole," Carli said. Also, "as agriculture has become more capital intensive, the borrowing needs of our customers have grown."

American AgCredit could add another $700 million in assets later this year if it acquires a Stockton ag lender now under consideration. Such a merger could improve efficiency and help American AgCredit keep interest rates down in a rising rate environment, Carli said.

The ascension of American AgCredit beyond $2 billion - the largest ever for a financial institution headquartered on the North Coast - is an important milestone for farmers, ranchers and the economy of the areas served by the farm lender.

It's especially helpful in Sonoma County, where American AgCredit makes 14 percent of its loans, the most of any county. Monterey County is second.

Last year American AgCredit had $252 million in loans outstanding in Sonoma County, up 11 percent over 2002, according to Chief Financial Officer Chris Call.

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