ChoiceOne’s Growers Program Receives Honorable Mention In ABA Foundation's 2021 Community Commitment Awards

Posted by Austin Schippers on Oct 29, 2021 8:15:00 AM

ChoiceOne Bank was recognized during the annual American Bankers Association (ABA) Foundation award ceremony honoring banks of all sizes earning the industry’s highest awards for community programs. ChoiceOne was a finalist in the Economic Inclusion category and received Honorable Mention for the Growers Program.

“We are very pleased to be selected as a finalist and receive Honorable Mention for our Growers Program,” said ChoiceOne Chief Executive Officer Kelly Potes. “America’s banks of all sizes competed for these coveted awards, so we were honored to stand out for the work we do in our Michigan communities.”

The annual awards recognize banks for extraordinary corporate social responsibility efforts in six specific categories ranging from affordable housing to economic inclusion. The winners were recognized at ABA’s Annual Convention in Tampa on October 19. The selection committee, made up of independent, national experts in each category, reviewed bank nominations from across the country and chose winners based on specific criteria including the creativity and thoughtfulness of the bank program.

The Why Behind ChoiceOne’s Growers Program
ChoiceOne Bank operates in some of the most diverse and abundant agricultural regions in our country. As an agricultural lending partner, we serve hundreds of agricultural businesses in Michigan, from local farms to international distributors.

Many of these farms employ seasonal help from Central and South America, resulting in an influx of unbanked and Spanish speaking consumers into ChoiceOne Bank’s markets. These communities also have many Spanish speaking permanent residents struggling to get service in Spanish. ChoiceOne Bank found a need to help our farmers as well as their employees with safe and efficient banking.

Helping Local Farmers
Our local farmers struggle to find safe and efficient ways to pay their employees as a majority do not have U.S. bank accounts. A common way to pay their employees is with paper checks, often cashed at check cashing facilities. Unfortunately, this results in employees keeping large sums of cash with them compromising their safety when crossing the border to return home, not to mention paying enormous check-cashing fees.

Safer Banking with Growers Program
ChoiceOne Bank saw a need to better serve these employees, provide peace of mind to local farmers, and educate consumers that are often taken advantage of because of their language barrier or lack of a bank account. In 2017, ChoiceOne Bank created the Growers Program to offer better banking alternatives to farmers and their employees. Today, ChoiceOne continues to strengthen the Growers Program and our commitment to the local farmers and their employees to keep banking safe, understandable, and efficient for all.

Critical Community Needs
Safe and efficient banking are the critical needs the Growers Program addresses for local farms and their Spanish speaking workers.

ChoiceOne serves hundreds of locally owned farms that grow apples, blueberries, peaches, and numerous other crops. Because many of these farms employ seasonal help from Central and South America, our communities will have an influx of unbanked and Spanish speaking consumers. We also have many permanent residents who struggle to get service in Spanish. As a result, these workers are left feeling vulnerable and unprotected financially.

At the same time, our local farmers struggle to find fast, safe, and efficient ways to pay their employees as most workers do not have U.S. bank accounts. A common way to pay workers is with paper checks, often cashed at check cashing facilities charging unfair check-cashing fees. Paper checks force these employees to hold large sums of cash compromising their safety when crossing the border to return home. Annually, there are reports of employees robbed on their route home.

ChoiceOne saw a need to educate consumers who are often taken advantage of because they are unbanked, have a language barrier, or both.

ChoiceOne wanted to find an alternative to the check cashing facilities charging ridiculous fees to cash checks and send money home. We began a checking account campaign for these farm workers offering a free account, named the “International Account” with customized debit cards allowing withdrawals from Central and South America and two ATM cards – one to keep with them and one international to send home to families. As an alternative to a checking account, ChoiceOne also partnered with a pay card provider.

ChoiceOne now provides financial education in Spanish, so these consumers know their banking options and eliminate misconceptions about banking. Our bilingual staff has performed numerous presentations after hours, at farm locations, to educate hundreds of workers about managing their money, explaining checking accounts, training on online banking, mobile banking, and addressing their questions. We also will meet groups at a standalone ATM to teach workers how to use an ATM, make withdrawals, and get balances.

ChoiceOne established a Spanish speaking customer service line, dubbed the Hola Line (Linea De Hola). A direct number rings our bilingual employees and is answered in Spanish. It is available to customers who prefer speaking Spanish and used when a bilingual Banker is unavailable. Initially, ChoiceOne sponsored a 9-week class where 20 ChoiceOne employees learned Spanish and learned about cultural diversity. The Bank continues to offer these classes periodically. ChoiceOne also underwent upgrades to our voice banking and consumer loan applications to offer a Spanish option.

Recognizing the need to help farmers pay their employees safe and efficiently, ChoiceOne identified the changing ways that checks were being negotiated at non-bank locations and the industry move to faster and cheaper ways to transfer money electronically.

Commitment to Success
As a community bank, ChoiceOne Bank takes pride in using “outside the box” and visionary thinking to find solutions for the families, farmers, and businesses in our communities. The Bank’s senior management live and work in the communities the Bank serves. They see firsthand the issues our agricultural business customers face as well as the farm workers who struggle to cash checks or try to send money home to their families. It was ChoiceOne Bank’s Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Adom Greenland who spearheaded the program. Overseeing the IT Department as well as Finance, Marketing, Retail Branches, Digital Channels, and Operations, his teams invested significant time and money developing ways to better serve this segment of the Bank’s communities, which were typically underserved. This was a bank wide effort for over a year with hundreds of hours invested when the Growers Program was first created in 2017.

The Growers Program allowed the Bank to leverage our resources with some of the nonprofits in our communities. As an example, ChoiceOne has developed relationships with the following partners and continues to work with them through monetary and volunteer support.

  • West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to help the growing number of Hispanic businesses, such as Latino-owned supermarkets, restaurants, shops, and services.
  • MI Spanish Connections to provide a variety of Spanish classes, offered as a fun professional service with culture immersion opportunities to help individuals and family members in their Spanish language learning journey.
  • Sparta Area Migrant Resource Council to help the children of the migrant and farm working families in the area with their school needs.

Throughout the last several years, we continue our commitment to serve our local farmers with the most cost effective and efficient services, including our international checking account for their employees. As part of our service, we visit farms and discuss our checking account options with the farm employees in Spanish and offer our Linea De Hola, our Spanish speaking customer service.

Many farms continue to sign up for direct deposit, with the potential to reach hundreds of farm workers every season. These options and programs create a bank wide awareness of diversity within communities and is a great example of our dedication to making ALL customers feel welcome.

ChoiceOne Offers Innovative Services

ChoiceOne is one of the few financial institutions offering these bundled services today. Our customers – both the farmers and their workers – have embraced the benefits of the Growers Program. Since its inception in 2017, the Program keeps growing and improving. These are some of the services offered that keep improving mostly because of a greater understanding of our farms as small businesses and their workers, along with improved technology. With the Growers Program we can keep broadening access to mainstream financial services for underserved communities, exemplifying what it means to be a community bank.

Services for Farm Workers

These are the two direct deposit options we offer H2A workers:

1. A checking account with ChoiceOne Bank

  • No minimum balance
  • No monthly service fees
  • ATM/Debit Card (plus 2) – one card stays here with the employee and one card is for their family back home to be used at an ATM
  • Mobile Banking
  • Spanish speaking staff at branches & Linea De Hola – Spanish speaking customer service
  • Free eStatements
  • Direct Deposit

2. A Pay Card Program through a bank partner

  • Pay card to use at any ATM
  • Pay card to use anywhere as a POS
  • Spanish speaking 24/7 help desk

Services for Agricultural Businesses

These are some of the Treasury Services we offer our small and large farms. They are fine-tuned to meet cash-flow needs and personalized to match each customer’s requirements.

  • Direct Deposit
    Direct Deposit transitions farms from paper checks to electronic payments. Our Treasury Services team trains on location and provides unlimited support.

  • Security Bundle - Featuring Positive Pay
    The Security Bundle helps businesses detect and prevent fraudulent ACH and checks before they impact the account.

  • Our Services
    ChoiceOne continues to offer a qualified team of treasury specialists who have many years of experience dealing with the unique needs of farms of all sizes. We are hands-on, working with businesses to make sure their customers are 100% satisfied.

Community Engagement

Because ChoiceOne Bank is the local choice for agricultural lending, we partner with many agricultural businesses in West Michigan, from local farms to international distributors. This gives us the opportunity to also support agencies like the Sparta Area Migrant Resource Council to help the families of local farm employees. We also partner with the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to help the growing number of Hispanic businesses, such as Latino-owned supermarkets, restaurants, shops, and services.

Every July, the Sparta Area Migrant Resource Council has an event for the migrant and farm working families of the area. This event supplies school-aged children with items to fulfill their basic needs to begin the school year. Everything is free to the children, and everyone who works at the event is a volunteer.

During the event, each child is provided a new backpack filled with school supplies, a new pair of tennis shoes, and a culturally friendly bag of groceries. The day includes cultural dances and music, along with a lunch of culturally friendly foods. Funding for most of this event is from the Fremont Area Community Foundation, which ChoiceOne also supports.

Historically, between 800 to 1,500 individuals attend the event each year. Approximately 300 to 350 school-aged children will receive back packs and shoes every year.

ChoiceOne is also engaged with the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. A year after the Growers Program began in 2017, COO Adom Greenland, the executive leader for the program, was recognized by the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for his executive oversight and strategic direction in leading ChoiceOne Bank’s outreach to the Hispanic population. He was nominated for the 2018 West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Building Bridges Award.

This award recognized non-Hispanic individuals who have made an impact on the West Michigan Hispanic Community. The Building Bridges Award focused on ChoiceOne’s efforts for broadening access to mainstream financial services for underserved communities by helping unbanked and Spanish speaking consumers. The nomination specifically recognized Adom for galvanizing his teams to volunteer and join in community outreach to the Hispanic population, specifically providing bilingual financial literacy and banking services to Hispanic residents and immigrants in West Michigan.

Expanding ChoiceOne’s Reach

Again, because ChoiceOne Bank is in the heart of some of the most diverse and abundant agricultural regions in our country we have become a leader in agricultural lending. In 2020, ChoiceOne completed two bank consolidations. The consolidation of Lakestone Bank & Trust with and into ChoiceOne Bank in May 2020 and the consolidation of Community Shores Bank with and into ChoiceOne Bank in October 2020. These mergers allowed ChoiceOne Bank to expand our footprint deeper into West Michigan and now into Eastern Michigan to offer the Growers Program to more farms and agricultural businesses across the state.

By the spring of 2021, ChoiceOne has been able to assist over 50 Eastern Michigan farm workers with new and safer banking options. However, COVID-19 slowed this process considerably as we were unable to visit our farms for presentations. Going forward, we will bring more farms into the program throughout our footprint, and we anticipate these numbers will grow. This program has the potential to reach more agricultural businesses in Michigan, from local farms to international distributors.

Growers Program economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable

While the Growers Program is expanding and is economically sustainable for ChoiceOne Bank by offering successful products, and the farmers and their workers are saving time and money with improved security, it is so much more encompassing. The program’s social sustainability is what is most remarkable today. The Growers Program continues to develop and make an impact on the wellbeing of both the communities ChoiceOne serves and the Bank’s employees. ChoiceOne’s core values are to provide superior service, quality advice and show utmost respect to everyone we meet. This program is exactly what ChoiceOne Bank is all about.

The Growers Program is truly making a difference in inclusivity and ensuring that the individuals, families, farmers, and communities will sustain healthier and safer lifestyles. The welfare of those touched by the Growers Program and the impact on the communities is already proving to be long lasting. You can see it, feel it within the Bank, and out in the communities, especially when ChoiceOne ambassadors are out volunteering their time and services.

ChoiceOne continues to provide staff after hours to help set up accounts and or pay cards to make it easier for farmers and their employees. The farm workers are all ages – ranging from teenagers to 60 years old and above. Some are unable to read and really need help to survive. We have real, face-to-face conversations with our Spanish speaking customers. We see firsthand the hardships they face when they cannot get access to money, cannot speak, or read the language, and feel overwhelmed. It’s been a humbling experience for all involved. We have built trust with our farmers and their workers because we listen, communicate in their language, understand their needs, and provide the services that help them.

Growers Program – Establishes Trust

ChoiceOne has benefited by offering safer, more efficient products to its farming communities. However, the foundation of financial literacy with this group is establishing trust. There is a fundamental distrust of banks both in the U.S. and in their home countries. We are overcoming this over time by building a reputation by word of mouth. Many of these workers come back to same area year after year. They’ve learned that our fees are better than check cashing facilities. And the ability to withdraw smaller amounts of money prevents potentially dangerous situations. The story of safety and convenience is taken to the farms seasonally with thorough presentations on using checking accounts, pay cards, ATMs, and other basic banking products.

With a complete line of treasury services for our agricultural farming customers to a fair, safe and convenient array of deposit products for the farm workers, ChoiceOne has achieved measurable success by the number of farms and their workers served and the number of accounts opened each season.

The Growers Program has certainly evolved over time and its results have been very encouraging. Thousands of workers have now participated in the Growers Program. We have opened over 1,000 checking accounts for H2A visa holders and issued pay cards in the thousands, allowing farmers to use direct deposit for these employees. ChoiceOne has successfully provided banking services to these individuals who normally would be “unbanked.” Access to a bank account is a necessary step to give someone financial independence. This has a significant impact on our customers’ lives. In addition, this program has changed the culture of the bank to be more compassionate and inclusive. This has been a huge benefit to ChoiceOne Bank, the farming customers and their employees and the entire community.

Goodwill and Financial Wellbeing Accomplished

Today, ChoiceOne continues to offer the Growers Program providing safe, secure banking to Spanish-speaking workers in the area’s agricultural and farming communities. Throughout the last several years, we have continued our commitment to serve our local farmers with the most cost effective and efficient services. Through this program we have helped over 80 local farms deliver these services to their workers. Each year, ChoiceOne processes over 100,000 payroll checks. Making the Growers Program an electronic process has created more security while saving time and money for the farmers and their workers.

Farm workers are no longer getting paid with paper checks thereby eliminating the need to pay enormous check-cashing fees as well as having to carry large sums of cash on their person. These workers now have direct deposit into a bank account or receive a pay card. They receive two ATM cards – one to use locally and one to send home for their families to use outside of the United States.

Farmers have peace of mind paying their workers electronically. They are also able to operate more efficiently with more safeguards in place. Yet, the immeasurable success of the Growers Program is the goodwill and financial wellbeing ChoiceOne has created for the farming and immigrant communities in Michigan.

“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

― Maya Angelou

Topics: community, Press Release, ChoiceOne Bank, Awards