Agriculture Risk Happens, Even Where You Didn’t Expect It

As a former Chief Economist for USDA, I can attest to the fact that farming is indeed a very risky business. Recent news reports out of USDA’s Risk Management Agency underscore that point all too clearly: With some 15 percent of all crop insurance claims yet to be processed, crop insurance companies have paid out a record $9.1 billion (1*) so far in indemnity payments to America’s farmers for 2011 crop losses, surpassing the previous record set in 2008 by nearly half-a-billion dollars. (2*) And the 2011 figure will continue to climb.

But the economist in me wanted to dig into the data to better understand the damages reflected by the overall numbers. And there were a number of surprises. Most people might expect that – given the severity of the drought in the southern plains – farms with the greatest damages per dollar of premium for insurance would be there. But while farmers in those states did suffer greatly, it was actually the farmers in Vermont, at the other end of the country, who saw the highest loss ratio last year.

Remember when Hurricane Irene slammed into New England? The farmers up there won’t soon forget it.

The surprise of that finding underscores just how vulnerable farmers are and how the federal government needs to have a hand in production agriculture. Indeed, farmers in 2011 were fortunate that crop insurance was available for more than 125 different crops and was purchased for 80 percent of eligible acreage.

But despite the success of the crop insurance program as illustrated last year, there are many in Congress who will be seeking even deeper cuts to this primary risk management tool, despite the fact that program funding has already been reduced by $12 billion since 2008. Congress and the Administration need to remember that farm income stabilization through risk management programs like crop insurance is critical for ensuring continuous and stable growth in overall supplies of food, feed and, increasingly, fuel.

In the not too distant past, when Mother Nature struck America’s agriculture sector, it often resulted in ad hoc disaster packages being born in the halls of Congress to address the damage and help the farming sector recover. While those packages were greatly appreciated by farmers, Congress decided to push to make crop insurance more universally available and affordable, giving farmers the tools they need to manage their own risks while taking some of the burden of the disaster assistance off of the backs of the public and putting it onto the laps of the private sector.

Today’s crop insurance policy makes more sense and works better because it puts the onus of managing risk on producers and farmers, not the government. The private sector crop insurance agent works directly with the producer to help put together an insurance plan that best meets their specific needs and is tailored to their comfort with risk. The outcome is a plan that protects their physical and financial assets in the face of natural hazards and market risks.

Another reason why crop insurance has become the most popular risk management tool in agriculture is that farmers and insurance agents alike recognize the wisdom in making farmers bear some of the risk and costs of the program. In order for a risk management program to work efficiently, it cannot completely remove risk from the equation—risk bearing ensures program accountability and discipline. Crop insurance helps ensure that while it’s in everyone’s best interest when farmers succeed, it’s also in everyone’s best interest to help farmers regain their footing when Mother Nature throws a tantrum.

There are other surprises that can be found when you drill into the 2011 claims data. For example, wouldn’t you expect that the ongoing drought in the southern plains would have meant that cotton and wheat were the most heavily damaged crops last year? But the hurricane that drowned out New England first passed over the Carolinas and severely damaged the flue cured tobacco crop, which, combined with several other weather issues in that area, resulted in the flue cured tobacco crop having the highest loss ratio last year of any crop.

Of course, drought did heavily damage much of America’s cotton and wheat, as $3.7 billion (3) in indemnities have been paid for those crops so far, but with crop insurance in place, farmers are able to bounce back. In fact, wheat growers in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas sowed 1.7 million more acres this fall than they did last year. Hopefully, the rains will come and we will all see a bounty. But if they don’t, the farmers have something in place to keep the bottom from falling out.

If you were surprised by Vermont, I can assure you that so were those farmers. That simply underscores how unpredictable Mother Nature can be and how almost anywhere in our country, crop insurance is there to help those who purchase it bounce back from these things.

Keith J. Collins is a former USDA Chief Economist who received his Ph.D. in economics and statistics at North Carolina State University in 1977.

This op-ed appeared in the Raleigh News Observer on February 8, 2012.
Since this op-ed ran, these numbers have been updated. The new numbers are:
(1) Indemnities are currently $10.8 billion
(2) Current indemnities have topped the previous record by more than $2.2 billion
(3) To date, indemnities paid for damages to cotton and wheat are $4.2 billion.