Keep Crop Insurance Affordable

Living through the drought of 2012 as an Illinois farmer gave me a whole new appreciation for risk management tools.  There are things that farmers can do to try and deal with the curve balls served up by Mother Nature and with the ups and downs of market swings, but many things – like a massive drought or a heat wave – are completely out of our control.

If this drought would have happened a decade before, it would have left many farmers completely devastated and on the verge of bankruptcy, with nowhere to turn but to Congress for an expensive, taxpayer-funded bailout package.   In fact, past disasters have cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars since 1979.

What was different about the drought of 2012, which was the worst natural disaster to hit this state in my lifetime, is that the vast majority of the state’s farmers had purchased the best risk management tool around:  crop insurance.  In fact, farmers spent well over $4 billion out of their own back pockets in 2012 purchasing the protection and peace of mind of crop insurance, which meant when disaster struck, they had a backup plan in hand.

The recent Farm Bill took three long years to pass and cut $23 billion out of farm programs.   But for those who for whatever reason are always looking to criticize farm policy that still wasn’t enough.   Now they have their sights set again on crop insurance, and are pushing forth ideas to make it more expensive for farmers to purchase.

What these misguided groups and members of congress seem to miss is that the reason why crop insurance has become the best risk management tool for farmers is that it’s affordable and reliable.  In fact, 90 percent of planted cropland was protected by crop insurance in 2014.  It’s this level of protection – made possible by crop insurance’s affordability – that keeps expensive disaster bills from hitting taxpayers when Mother Nature strikes.

Unlike direct payments in the past, crop insurance is not a handout. In fact, when farmers purchase crop insurance, they receive a bill, not a check, and only receive a payment if they incur a loss, and only after paying a deductible Just like homeowners insurance, when farmers buy crop insurance, they do so hoping that they will never have to use it.  And many of them rarely do.  In fact, since 2000, farmers have paid out more than $38 billion purchasing the protection of crop insurance, and in most years, they don’t collect a dime.

If crop insurance becomes more costly, then farmers simply won’t be able to afford it, and they will have nowhere to turn but the Federal government when disaster strikes.  This is a lesson we learned over and over again before crop insurance became widely available and affordable.

Crop insurance works so well and has been embraced so readily by farmers across the country because it’s a public private partnership that combines the best of the public and private sectors.  Crop insurance premiums are partially discounted by the government to ensure affordability and the policies are sold and serviced by the private sector.  And when disaster strikes, an indemnity check arrives in weeks, not years.

Like any other public policy, crop insurance isn’t perfect, and I’m sure Congress will do some fine-tuning to the program in the next Farm Bill just like they did in this one.  But the most important thing to keep in mind is that farmers are not only enormous producers, they are enormous consumers as well.  And with crop insurance policies in hand, they can bounce back from natural disaster or huge market fluctuations and continue to be the engines that drive the economy of rural America.

Keith Mussman is president of the Kankakee County Farm Bureau.  This op-ed appeared in the Champaign News-Gazette on April 27, 2015.

USDA Proposes Expansion of Crop Insurance to Cover Underserved, Specialty Crops

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently proposed to expand certain regulations to increase the availability of crop insurance to many farmers who currently can’t purchase coverage for their crops – including many fruit and vegetable growers – the agency announced recently.

“These improvements will help expand and improve crop insurance to underserved crops,” noted Risk Management Agency Administrator Brandon Willis.  The proposed rule will ease the burden on private submitters while making crop insurance policies for underserved and specialty crop commodities a priority.

Many of the recommended changes addressed provisions of the 2014 Farm Bill that were meant to expand the farm safety net options for modern agricultural practices, a move of significant importance given the elimination of direct payments to farmers.

“We are continuing our work to ensure that a wider variety of producers have access to sound risk management tools to keep themselves protected from disaster,” noted Willis.   USDA’s full announcement can be found here.

Steve Baccus: Farmers need protection of crop insurance

When the homesteaders came to Kansas, they were looking for land to farm and a chance at the American dream. If they were like my family, they arrived here in a covered wagon, and many of us still live on the land where they began to build their dreams.

But Kansas can be a cruel place to farm. On the turn of a dime, a lifetime’s worth of work and every penny you have can be wiped out by a single hailstorm, a heat wave or drought, a springtime flood or frost, or a market crash that erases any chance of profit regardless of how well your crops do that year.

And that, in a nutshell, is why the vast majority of Kansas farmers purchase crop insurance every year, and why it must remain available, affordable and viable. In fact, with the passage of the 2014 farm bill, crop insurance is the primary risk management tool available to commodity farmers and the only risk management tool available to many specialty crop farmers.

One thing that has dramatically changed in agriculture since my family homesteaded in Minneapolis, Kan., is that farming has now become an incredibly capital-intensive venture. It takes so much money just to put a crop in the ground and harvest it at the end of the season that anyone farming without crop insurance might as well be playing Russian roulette.

I’ve had lots of friends tell me over the past several years that if it weren’t for crop insurance, they would not have been able to put a crop in the ground the next year. Crop insurance is a public-private partnership whereby farmers purchase private policies from participating companies that sell and service the policies. One of the government’s main roles is to discount the policies to a degree that they are widely affordable to most farmers.

In 2014, about 90 percent of planted cropland was protected by crop insurance, paid for out of the back pockets of farmers to the tune of $3.8 billion. Nationally, more than 1.2 million policies were purchased, protecting almost 294 million acres of food, feed, fiber and fuel crops that accounted for more than $110 billion in liabilities.

With the cost of farming so high, most farmers have to actually show proof of having purchased crop insurance in order to secure a production loan from a bank. The farmers get to sleep better at night because they have purchased the protection of crop insurance, and banks are able to make production loans to folks who might otherwise be judged too risky.

Some think that crop insurance is a freebie. Let me set the record straight right now: It’s not. Farmers have skin in the game when they pay their premiums, which is not pocket change. I bet the farmers I know spend $35,000 to $40,000 every year to purchase their policies. And in many years, they don’t collect a dime.

The reason why food supply in the U.S. remains abundant is that we have tools in place to make sure that when farmers are knocked to their knees by the whims of Mother Nature, they have a policy tool in hand to pick themselves back up and plant again. Let’s make sure that crop insurance remains affordable, viable and available for generations to come, to ensure a continued legacy of abundance in America.

Steve Baccus of Minneapolis, Kan., is the immediate past president of the Kansas Farm Bureau.  This op-ed appeared in the Wichita Eagle on February 5, 2015.

Wyoming Farmers Can Depend on Crop Insurance

I have a unique perspective among American farm wives since I was born and raised as an Assyrian living in Teheran, Iran. I came to Wyoming as a student but fell in love with a farmer and have spent my life making a living from and raising my family on the land that we love.

Farming can be a risky business, which my husband and I have learned first hand since we began farming together in 1989. The risks that we face generally come from Mother Nature – drought, floods, pests or hail – so there’s only so much you can do to manage your risk. And that is why we have purchased crop insurance every year since we first bought our farm.

Crop insurance is no small expense for us or other Wyoming farmers, but it’s the best risk management tool in town. Last year, Wyoming farmers purchased over 2,500 crop insurance policies costing farmers more than $8 million out of their own back pockets. Nationally, farmers have spent more than $38 billion of their own money purchasing crop insurance policies since 2000.

Crop insurance not only helps you sleep better at night, but it’s a smart business decision, even though on most years we don’t collect a dime. But on those years when disaster strikes, farmers who haven’t purchased the protection of crop insurance could be facing a very gloomy future.

Last year, for example, we were hit with not one but four major hailstorms, which struck right when the plants were the most vulnerable. The leaves of area dry edible bean and sugarbeet plants were torn and tattered, which staunches their development.

In the past, before crop insurance became widely affordable, Wyoming farmers would have turned to the federal government for disaster assistance. But since roughly 90 percent of planted cropland was protected by crop insurance in 2013, farmers turned to their crop insurance agents, not the federal government, for help.

And unlike assistance from the federal government that can be agonizingly slow in arriving, crop insurance checks usually come within weeks or a month of completing the paperwork. That is one reason why it is so popular among farmers who have faced disaster, like us.

The passage of the 2014 Farm Bill placed crop insurance as the centerpiece of the new farm risk management strategy. Crop insurance is a public/private partnership whereby the federal government discounts a portion of a farmer’s crop insurance premium to ensure that it is widely purchased, and 19 participating crop insurance companies sell and service the claims.

Banks do not always require crop insurance, but they certainly feel better making loans to farmers who have purchased it. Why? Because bankers like to know that if disaster strikes, that some of the money they loaned will be coming back to them.

Crop insurance, like other public policies, has its detractors. Among them are those who say that farmers would rather collect a crop insurance check than raise a crop. That’s simply not true. With the high cost of farm inputs, including seed, fertilizer, fuel, labor and overhead, there is no way that you could collect enough insurance every year to cover your expenses, much less live on.

A farm simply could not float by collecting on crop insurance claims, and anyone who has any understanding of agriculture should know that.

Coming from a different nation, I also see a value of crop insurance that might not be readily apparent to some Americans. Farmers are a major economic force in rural America, pumping billions of dollars into the rural economy – purchasing fuel, equipment, storage building and paying farmhands – while producing the food, fiber and fuel this nation needs. Believe me, Americans really would not want to be reliant on other nations for our food security.

When we lose our food security, next will come our independence. And none of us want to lose that.

Klodette and Rick Stroh farm 1,800 acres near Powell, Wyo. Klodette is also a member of Women Involved in Farm Economics (WIFE).

This op-ed appeared in the Prairie Star on July 17, 2014.

North Dakota Farmers Know First Hand Why Crop Insurance is Money Well Spent

I’ve spent the last 17 years of my life farming in North Dakota and I’ve loved every minute of it. But it can be a very risky business. There are many steps that farmers can take to manage risk, like growing a wide variety of crops, rotating crops and growing cover crops to prevent erosion. And we do all of that.

But let’s face it, when we get an early August freeze, or a spring flood, or a drought, just about all of the best farming practices in the world will fail to protect us. And that is why I, like most farmers across the state, always purchase crop insurance. In fact, last year North Dakota farmers spent more than $38 million out of their own pockets purchasing crop insurance policies.

It’s just a smart business decision. There has never been a year when we didn’t have crop insurance. Sure, it costs a lot of money, and that money could be spent elsewhere. But that would be a penny wise and pound foolish, since going through a natural disaster can cost you the farm.

This isn’t a hypothetical argument. In fact, last spring during planting, we had 18 inches of rain in 21 days. In between downpours we planted what we could, but by the time the rain was finished, we couldn’t get back into the fields to finish planting. In other words, we started off our growing season with only half a crop. Thankfully, our crop insurance policy covered that kind of loss. We certainly didn’t make a dime from the policy, but the indemnity check helped cover the rent on the land and the lost fertilizer that had been laid on a field that couldn’t be planted.

The passage of the new Farm Bill this year marks a pivotal stage in U.S. farm policy. Gone are the days of direct payments and large disaster bills aimed at helping farmers after natural disasters. In its place is crop insurance, which has been embraced by farmers, farm groups and lenders alike. Farmers who don’t purchase crop insurance need to realize that the federal government is no longer going to come along with an ad hoc disaster bill and bail us out.

The centerpiece of the new risk management strategy on the farm is crop insurance, which is sold and serviced by private insurance companies and partially discounted by the federal government. The government’s role – helping to ensure that crop insurance is affordable to farmers – has remade the face of crop insurance from a policy that for many years was largely unknown and underused to a risk management tool that last year protected 90 percent of planted cropland.

Crop insurance is not only popular with farmers, but with bankers as well. In fact, most farmers need to show proof of a crop insurance policy when they meet with bankers to secure production loans. The banks realize what a risky loan they are making, and are more likely to take that risk if they have the relative protection of crop insurance.

Crop insurance is good public policy for farmers, bankers, and taxpayers alike. In the past, extensive droughts like what much of the nation experienced in 2012 would have triggered an enormous ad hoc disaster bill in Congress. But since the vast majority of the cropland was protected by crop insurance during the worst drought to hit the nation since the Dust Bowl days, farmers sought assistance from their crop insurance policies, not the federal government.

Crop insurance, like all public policies, has its detractors, however. And before the ink is even dry on the new Farm Bill, these groups are plotting their assault on crop insurance. They have their sights set on the premium discount, the very thing that makes crop insurance affordable to farmers. Without the discount, farmers like me couldn’t afford to purchase crop insurance. And if a large-scale natural disaster hits and farms across the country fail, where is our food going to come from? I don’t think most Americans would want to be in a position of relying on other nations for our food in addition to our fuel.

Crop insurance is good public policy because it helps underpin farmers, who are enormous consumers and literally drive the rural economy. Americans spend about10 percent of their incomes on food, among the lowest of any country. With the proper risk management tools in hand for farmers, the promise of a safe and affordable food supply will not only be a legacy for our children, but for the world’s growing population as well.

Diane McDonald, from Inkster, North Dakota, is the national media chairperson for Women Involved in Farm Economics (WIFE).

This op-ed appeared in Agri-Pulse on April 8, 2014.

Crop Insurance Is Critical to Michigan’s Specialty Crop Industry

The affordability and bounty of the American food system did not occur by happenstance. It took wise policies supported by dedicated officials, hardworking farmers willing to risk their fortunes and a first-rate transportation and distribution system.

Many of the policies that underpin food production chiefly support the major food and feed commodities like corn, wheat and soybeans. But for those of us raising specialty crops – those fruits, vegetables and nuts that are an important part of our diet – there’s only one major risk management tool available: crop insurance.

Crop insurance is a public-private partnership whereby farmers purchase their own policies to cover the risks they choose to pay for. Michigan’s farmers face a huge amount of risk on a daily basis, including early frosts, drought, floods and market fluctuations. That’s why in 2012, farmers in this state paid $63 million to purchase policies to cover those risks.

Before crop insurance was widely available, natural disasters like the drought of 2012 would have triggered a massive, expensive ad hoc disaster bill in Congress that would have cost taxpayers dearly. In fact, 42 emergency disaster bills in agriculture have cost taxpayers $70 billion since 1989, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Last year, after a late spring freeze that destroyed the tree fruit crop followed by the worst drought in decades, there wasn’t a single large-scale outcry for help from Congress. The reason is that 86 percent of planted cropland was protected by crop insurance. Farmers put skin in the game and helped take some of the burden off of the taxpayers.

When disaster strikes a farmer, he needs help now. While every farmer appreciated the disaster bills of the past, they took a very long time to arrive – sometimes up to two years. For a farmer who has lost everything, two years might as well be 200 years.

Crop insurance is not without its critics. In fact, there are some in Washington, D.C. who, during last summer’s drought, claimed that farmers were praying for drought, not rain, implying they’d rather collect a crop insurance check than a harvest. To set the record straight, crop insurance is not cheap, and the nation’s farmers spent more than $4 billion in 2012 buying it. Most of them will spend that money without collecting an indemnity. In fact, in 2011, about two-thirds of the crop insurance policies purchased never collected an indemnity.

Michigan grows a wide variety of specialty crops each year, leading the nation in the production of several specialty crops, including dry beans, red tart cherries, blueberries, Niagara grapes and squash, making the state second only to California in the diversity of its crops.

In some ways, that abundance is a miracle, in other ways it is not. If it weren’t for hard work, investment, infrastructure and crop insurance to manage some of the major risks, Michigan’s horn of plenty might not be so full.

Steve Umlor is the president of Centennial Fruit in Conklin, Michigan. This op-ed appeared in the Lansing State Journal on May 12, 2013.

 

Farmers Rely On Crop Insurance When Nature Turns on Them

There is a huge story playing out right before our very eyes this year in agriculture that nearly everyone is missing: Despite the fact that this nation has faced two of the worst farming years in decades – with devastating drought in the Southern Plains and flooding in the Midwest in 2011, and widespread drought over major corn and soybean growing regions in 2012 – there has not been a single call for an ad hoc disaster bill from America’s crop farmers.

And why no calls for disaster assistance from crop farmers? Because 86 percent of planted farmland in 2012 was protected by crop insurance, the best risk management tool available to farmers. Before crop insurance was widely available, natural disasters like we have just experienced would have triggered a very costly, unbudgeted ad hoc disaster bill. Forty-two such emergency disaster bills in agriculture have cost taxpayers $70 billion since 1989, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Crop insurance was designed by Congress to largely replace the need for ad hoc disaster legislation, thereby helping to shelter taxpayers from the full costs of agricultural disasters and avoiding the need to enact new disaster assistance following every major farm disaster, such as was recently experienced with Hurricane Sandy.

Farmers rely on crop insurance, and they show their support by voting with their pocketbooks. In fact, since 2000, farmers have spent nearly $30 billion out of their own pockets to purchase crop insurance protection. Yes, crop insurance premiums are partially discounted by the federal government, but first and foremost, farmers must put skin in the game to gain coverage.

Farmers must suffer a verifiable loss to collect an indemnity. Contrary to allegations, most farmers purchase crop insurance and do not collect an indemnity. In fact, of the nearly 1.1 million policies purchased in 2012 – the worst drought we have faced in decades — less than half of the policies were indemnified. And that is in a really bad year.

When farmers who purchase crop insurance suffer a loss, they usually receive their indemnity checks within 30 days of finalizing the claim. By contrast, it took the federal government three months to pass the Hurricane Sandy relief bill, and it could take months more before those funds reach the victims.

Of course, it is easy to criticize insurance after a costly disaster, which is why opponents of crop insurance, like the Environmental Working Group (EWG), are jumping on the bandwagon right now. EWG is not only critical of farm policy, but farmers as well. In fact, this summer, EWG claimed that farmers were “praying for drought, not praying for rain,” a statement that makes no sense whatsoever and points to EWG’s lack of understanding of the farm community and rural economy.

In an unusual and catastrophic year like 2012, there will be heavy losses and all participants will feel the pinch. That is how all insurance works. In crop insurance, losses are shared by farmers, who pay premiums — $4.1 billion last year — and who have deductibles, thus shouldering a percentage of loss; private insurers when premiums do not offset losses, as was the case in 2012; and, the government, which acts as a reinsurer and provides premium support.

But losses by the federal government are buffered by underwriting gains that they make during the good years. That was the case from 2001-2010 when the government saw $3.99 billion in underwriting gains.

So while opponents of crop insurance criticize a policy that has been embraced by farmers, farm groups, bankers and politicians of all political stripes, it is noteworthy that critics have conveniently glossed over the fact that this policy ensures that taxpayers are never stuck with the whole tab, as they were in the era of ad hoc disaster assistance, and they can rest assured that the food production system is financially stable.

But two bad years in a row might actually turn into three. Unless the spring rains break this pattern, 2013 is starting off as an incredibly dry year for many farmers, with roughly 57 percent of the continental U.S. in some level of drought. Thankfully, most of those farmers will purchase crop insurance, a

smart, fiscally sound and reliable approach to risk management.

This op-ed appeared in The Hill’s Congress Blog on March 1, 2013. Tom Zacharias is president of National Crop Insurance Services in Overland Park, Kansas.

CROP INSURANCE IN ACTION: Paul Penner, Hillsboro, Kansas

In 2012, the drought in Kansas was in its second year, and wheat, corn and soybean farmer Paul Penner was just trying to survive to the next season.

Crop insurance has been Penner’s lifeline for the last two years and the years before that. It has given him and his wife, Deborah, the means and security to plan ahead and prepare for another year should the drought persist. “Without it, many farmers, including us, would face financial uncertainty as revenue would be insufficient to cover production expenses,” said Penner, 60, of Hillsboro, which is about 45 miles north of Wichita.

In 2012, the Penners had a 75 percent insurance coverage plan for wheat crops and 70 percent coverage for fall crops, such as corn, soybeans and sorghum. Just like car insurance, his goal is to “never have to use it.”

Penner has been covered by crop insurance policy for more than 25 years now. If not for this federal safety net, he said, “I wouldn’t be in farming today.”

The insurance helps him recover part of his losses. “It pays for a little bit of your crops or production if we had a bad year like the last two to three years’ drought. The insurance pays me a certain percentage of the revenue I have lost. They don’t pay all of it,” he explained. “They will never pay you 100 percent.”

But he said he’s OK with not recovering 100 percent because even in a bad year, he said a farmer does not really lose a 100 percent of his production. “At least you’re given enough so you can pay your bills,” he said.

Insurance estimates are based on actuarial history of crop yield and the price of the commodity, among other parameters. Premiums could be higher for one crop per acre than the other. In Penner’s case, corn has a higher premium cost than wheat and soybeans.

Filing is straightforward process. A farmer reports his losses to the crop insurance agent, and the insurance company will then send an adjuster to verify the claims based on established guidelines. The farmer and the adjuster will work through production data sheets. Once approved, help is on the way.

His agent is a local, family-owned company with businesses around the Midwest. It’s the third insurance company Penner has contracted over the years, as many have folded up and sold their business.

The premium varies year to year. Penner said he has paid anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000 over the years he has been using crop insurance. The federal government picks up part of the premium – about 60 percent – as the cost to the farmer would be “prohibitive.”

With the current mood in Congress to cut the national debt, there are some who would like to see the entire crop insurance bill “disappear,” he said. He asserted not all so-called “subsidies” should be painted with the same brush, and it’s his view that ad hoc disaster legislation “is a thing of the past.”

Like many in Kansas, Penner was born to farm. Kansas ranks sixth in farm exports. Beef, grain sorghum, and wheat – introduced to the state by the early Russian Mennonite settlers – are the major products. Hillsboro, where Penner Farms is located, has a population of about 3,000.

“Farming is a risky business as weather is the biggest uncontrollable factor,” Penner said. “Without an adequate risk management tool like crop insurance, a farmer cannot make marketing plans with the reasonable certainty he will be successful.”

Penner says that he can’t fathom managing all the risks of farming without crop insurance. “Crop insurance is absolutely necessary, period,” he said. He says that what crop insurance helps this country do is to ensure food security — the country’s ability to provide a reliable and safe food supply for its people, and not be forced with “going to China and Brazil to purchase our food.”

Record 86 Percent of Planted Farmland Protected by Crop Insurance

Eighty-six percent of all planted U.S. farmland – some 281 million acres – is protected by crop insurance this year, up 2 percent from 2011 and a nearly three-fold increase from the late 1990s when only about 30 percent of farmers purchased policies, according to data from USDA’s Risk Management Agency.

The growth in coverage has been fueled by a number of factors, including fewer federal risk management alternatives for farmers, many farmers’ desire to have increased control of their risk management choices, federally-funded premium subsidies for those who purchase policies, a wide array of policy options and the value banks place on crop insurance when making loans.

But many would argue that private sector crop insurance agents, who operate largely on commission for the policies they sell, should be included in that list as well. Ruth Gerdes, a farmer and crop insurance agent from Auburn, Nebraska, nearly lost the land that she and her husband were farming 28 years ago and decided that other farmers needed to learn more about the benefits of crop insurance to avoid a similar brush with foreclosure.

One of the undeniable factors behind the growth of crop insurance, according to Gerdes, is “a motivated workforce” of agents. “We all strive to provide a quality service,” she said, adding that in an industry where premiums are decided by the government, the only way agents can distinguish themselves is through superior customer service.

“We all work to know the products and markets and are willing to be called upon at all hours when disaster strikes,” she said. Gerdes explained that agents, who are often farmers, or have farmed themselves, take great pride in their work and want their customers – the farmers – to be happy with both the insurance products they purchase as well as the service the agents provide. “And of course, part of it also is because we want the producer’s business again the next year,” she added.

Gerdes argues that “this competitive business model is good for the farmer and good for the system,” which is evident by the ever-increasing number of new crop insurance products developed, which today protect 128 different crops.

In 2012, some 1.2 million crop insurance polices were sold, covering 128 different crops. While 84 percent of the polices sold covered corn (34 percent), soybeans (31 percent) and wheat (19 percent), policies were also written for specialty crops including cherries, almonds, cranberries and avocados.

CROP INSURANCE IN ACTION: Andy Bell, Climax, Georgia

On the first Saturday after Thanksgiving, you can chase a greased pig in the southwestern Georgia town of Climax as it celebrates its Swine Time Festival, which normally draws up to 30,000 people in an area where only 300 people live.

There is also corn shucking and a squeal-off. Climax is the highest point on the railroad line between Savannah and the Chattahoochee River. After its founding in the 1880s, the town served as a rail junction and an agricultural community. It was incorporated in 1905.

The weather for a farmer in Climax can be tricky. The town is located only a few dozen miles from the Gulf of Mexico which can bring in hurricanes as powerful as Katrina, which struck New Orleans with devastating fury in 2005. But this corner of southern Georgia has also been hit by a drought that rivals the one which hit this year in the U.S. Midwest, shriveling the cotton and peanuts that farmers grow in the area.

“We’re 90 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. We had a tropical storm come through in [20]09. We’re so close to the coast that we have to have some type of insurance,” said Andy Bell, who farms about 2,000 acres outside of town. On the other hand, “2007 was a terrible, dry year.”

“We buy crop insurance every year,” said Bell. “We typically buy 70 percent [of coverage]. You’re not going to make any money but it will prevent you from losing the farm.”

His main crops are peanuts, cotton and corn. Some 700 acres are sown to peanuts, about 1,100 acres to cotton and about 200 acres to corn. There is also a small herd of about 200 beef cattle.

Bell said there were some anxious moments before Hurricane Isaac veered away from their area a few months ago and headed for New Orleans. The storm season, which does not end until November 30, remains a threat, but the end to hurricane season is not far off.

For once, Bell is looking forward to harvest season as it looks like the weather is going to cooperate. “I think the peanut crop is going to be good this year. We dodged a bullet when the storm went the other way,” said Bell, who began farming in 1982.

The average yield for peanut farms would run around 1 to 3 tons per acre.

But just as Bell suspected, this year yields will be at record highs. USDA forecasts it at a record 3,714 pounds per acre, which would be 400 + pounds higher than last year.

Bell’s cotton crop is also in pretty good shape, with the Georgia farmer saying they may approach the yields of a few years ago when the harvest stood at 1,300 to 1,400 lbs an acre. That is pretty good considering the national average is about 800 pounds an acre.

His main problem though is the price of cotton. Since scaling a record high at $2.27 a pound in March 2011, cotton prices have shriveled and are now trading around $.75 a pound. “We have (had) a price collapse,” he said.

In good years and bad, Bell said crop insurance is indispensable simply because the weather in his area is so unpredictable. “It can rain here and then five miles down the road, you get no rain,” he said. Bell noted that crop insurance is ”not a fix-all,” but it gives farmers a chance to come back after a bad year.

For him, removing crop insurance is unthinkable. Banks and other lending institutions would not extend any credit to farmers if there is no safety net like crop insurance to give them some assurance that they will get part of their money back.

“I think it would be catastrophic,” Bell declared. “He [the American farmer] would be out of business. We’ve got to have some form of insurance.”

 

CROP INSURANCE IN ACTION: Todd & Ty Williams

Todd and Ty Williams grew up on their family’s farm near Gruver, Texas, a town of about 1,100 people in the panhandle region. Todd Williams says he’s been driving a tractor since he was about seven years old, so it was just the natural course of events that he and his brother Ty would end up on the farm together as adults.

The brothers have been farming together since 1984. Williams notes that the main driver behind his desire to farm is his love for the work and the land, “because the money certainly isn’t in there,” he says. But above all else, he adds “there’s no better place on earth to raise your kids.”

The Williams brothers farm about 1,800 acres of wheat, corn, cotton and milo. Todd says that when he looks back at 2011, he remembers a year of unbelievable extremes. “Some people were flooded out in other parts of the country while we couldn’t buy a drop of water to save our lives.”

But farming and risk go hand in hand, and that’s why Williams purchases a crop insurance policy every year. “Wheat farming is so risky that using forward contracting as your only risk management tool is nearly impossible,” he says. That’s because if Mother Nature strikes and a crop is forward contracted without crop insurance, a farmer can end up owing a huge sum of money to fulfill the contract, on top of not having anything to harvest to provide income for the rest of the year.

Williams says he learned that lesson the hard way. He explained that a few years ago, he had a bumper wheat crop that was ready to harvest, so he worked through the day and on into the night, harvesting as much wheat as he could. He finally quit around 10 pm, with lots of wheat left standing in the field but exhausted from the long day’s work. Later that night, a large hailstorm blew through, crushing the remaining wheat. “One day it was ready to harvest, the next morning there was nothing taller that two inches in the whole field,” he said.

“Playing futures is risky, but contracting your wheat is an even bigger risk,” he notes.

Texas is a state that is not unfamiliar with droughts, heat waves, tornadoes and other weather anomalies. And because of that kind of weather, many Texas farmers are prepared to lose some of their crop on most years; but never all of it.

The drought of 2011 was so widespread and so extreme that even irrigated crops could hardly be saved. “It was so hot and dry, our irrigation pumps just wouldn’t cut it and our crops dried up,” Williams said.

Williams explained that he and other farmers were pulling so much water out of the local aquifer that they had to continually lower their pumps to keep the water coming.

The Williams brothers were running five irrigation wells and still couldn’t keep up with the heat and the lack of rain. “The crops just withered despite the irrigation,” Williams noted. “It was 110-112 degrees, the wind was blowing and the rain was nowhere to be found.”

Average rainfall for that part of the Texas panhandle is usually about 18-20 inches annually. In 2011, they received less than six inches for the whole year. Williams explained that when all was said and done, they were able to save a tiny portion of their crop by focusing irrigation on certain areas, but for the most part, “almost the entire crop was lost.”

Luckily his crop insurance agent, who Williams describes as “a super guy,” had touched base with the brothers throughout the year and knew that some degree of loss was inevitable. After months of fighting the drought and watching their crops wither despite their efforts, the Williams brothers came to the difficult decision that their fields were simply lost.

“The loss of a crop is crushing, even when you have crop insurance, because the insurance doesn’t really make you whole, it only helps you to recover to a small degree,” said Williams. He explained that like other farmers, he always looks forward to harvest, because it not only means the infusion of money, it’s the accomplishment of a year’s work. “I’d much rather have a harvest than an indemnity check,” he said.

But when disaster strikes and you lose some – or all – of your crop, farmers hope that the indemnity payment from their crop insurance policy is quick to arrive. Williams said that for him, that has always been the case. “Usually, the indemnity arrives in a week to 10 days,” he noted.

“If we didn’t have federal crop insurance last year, I’d be working at Wal-Mart or somewhere else today,” Williams said. “There is not a chance in the world I’d be farming today.” Williams said that because of his crop insurance policy, he and his brother are back farming today, and although it’s a bit dry, it’s a huge improvement over last year.

“Without federal crop insurance we’d be toast.”

 

No, Virginia, this is not West Texas

Northeast Indiana looks more like West Texas this summer than America’s heartland. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, nearly 70 percent of the state, including a wide swath from around the Kentucky border in the south, north through Fort Wayne and all the way to the Michigan border is in an “extreme or exceptional” drought. Sadly, there is not a county in the state where some degree of drought does not exist.

73 percent of the state’s corn crop, the nation’s most valuable commodity, is in poor or very poor condition. 53 percent of our soybean crop, the second biggest revenue-generating commodity in the state, is in poor or very poor condition as well. Ranchers in the state are quickly running out of options to feed their livestock, as 89 percent of the state’s pastures are in poor or very poor condition as well.

While we’ve been blessed with adequate rainfall for the past month, for the corn crop it’s a case of “too little and too late.” We’re also still at a level of sub-soil moisture that, if it doesn’t improve, will potentially make it difficult to produce a crop in 2013…

Rob Schuman is a corn, soybean and cattle farmer from Churubusco and is the vice president of the Whitley County Farm Bureau.

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Drought Worsens As USDA Cuts Crop Projections; Farmers Hopes Sink

The weekly U.S. Drought Monitor map released August 14 held more bad news for the contiguous United States, with 62 percent remaining in some level of drought. And the expanse that is gripped by extreme or exceptional drought rose nearly two percent last week to 24 percent.

The center of the drought remains directly over the Corn Belt. With some stage of drought covering the entire states of Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas, the drought is certainly taking its toll on the corn and soybean crops. According to the August 10 estimates from USDA – the first “in the field” estimates of the year – production numbers are down substantially from what was projected at the beginning of the planting season.

Despite the fact that this was the largest corn crop planted since 1937, production is projected to be down 13 percent, the lowest output since 2006. Corn yields are expected to average 123.4 bushels per acre, down nearly 24 bushels from last year, which would be the lowest average yield since 1995. Soybeans tell a similar story. Soybean production is forecast to be down by 12 percent from last year, and if realized, would have the lowest average yield since 2003.

“Thankfully, the vast majority of the farms in these drought-ravaged areas are protected by crop insurance,” said Tom Zacharias, president of National Crop Insurance Services, in a statement released to the media. Zacharias noted that farmers purchase crop insurance policies to protect themselves against situations just like this, although many have never collected an indemnity. “This year, their decision to purchase crop insurance confirms their practice of sound risk management,” he said.

While there continues to be speculation about the ultimate cost of the 2012 drought, it is still too early to provide precise estimates of the losses. Zacharias explained that NCIS is analyzing the August 10 report and will compare that with reports from the field along with the crop insurance policy data that is still being processed and reported to the Risk Management Agency.

It will be hard to gain a complete picture of the situation and final outcomes will vary by state, crop and types of policies purchased. “What is certain is that the crop insurance industry is on the ground in the drought-stricken areas, mobilizing loss-adjuster teams,” Zacharias pointed out.

“Farmers can be assured their claims will be paid, and that the companies will move as quickly and as efficiently as possible, given the expected volume of claims, to assess damages and get indemnity checks into the hands of farmers.”

In order to be approved to sell federal crop insurance, companies must have adequate surplus and reinsurance at their disposal so that even if a catastrophe of this magnitude strikes, and then one strikes again the next year, the company is still capable of paying indemnities on the policies they sell.

In addition to company surplus and reinsurance, the federal government serves as the backstop reinsurer for all companies that sell crop insurance. As such, the federal government shares in the gains and the losses of the program. Gains in prior years can and will be used to offset losses in years like this one.

Zacharias explained that the industry has 5,000 claims adjusters and 15,000 agents working tirelessly right now to help growers cope. These adjusters are working hard to get money to farmers who have suffered losses, already paying out more than $1 billion in indemnities to date. Companies are also mobilizing adjusters away from other parts of the country that have not been affected by drought and sending those adjusters to the hard-hit states.

“With their crop insurance policies in hand, farmers will not only survive this drought but plant again next year, ensuring a continuity of the food, feed, fiber and fuel supply for this nation and an increasingly hungry world,” he added.

 

Tropical Storm Irene Proved the Value of Crop Insurance

One side benefit of the popular “eating local” movement is a growing recognition by urbanites and suburbanites of the importance of agriculture and the need to ensure that farmers are able to withstand the many challenges presented by Mother Nature. While farmers manage their many risks using a wide variety of tactics, there is one tool in most farmers’ risk management portfolio, which they consider indispensible: crop insurance.

The value of crop insurance to New England’s farmers was made crystal clear last year by Tropical Storm Irene, which brought heavy winds and even heavier rains just as crops were nearing harvest. While 2011 saw record losses across the U.S. with freezes in Florida, drought in the Southwest and floods in the Midwest, it was farmers in Vermont who sustained the highest loss ratios in the country. As a crop insurance agent, I can attest that many of our farmers saw their entire crops devoured in one day as floodwaters, sometimes six feet high, swallowed their fields.

After the waters finally receded and the extent of the damage to their farms was assessed, it quickly became clear that Irene’s wallop had the potential of being a “game changer” for many New England farmers. And crop insurance was the only thing that saved many of them from losing their farms to bankruptcy and instead allowed them to return to their fields this spring and plant.

Crop insurance is a public private-partnership whereby a farmer buys a policy that protects his crops from adversity. Just like homeowner’s insurance or car insurance, crop insurance is personalized to match each farmer’s degree of exposure to losses and comfort level with risk. It’s sold, monitored and delivered by the private sector, so farmers receive their indemnities quickly after catastrophe strikes.

But it wasn’t always like this. When I first became an agent in New England in 1984, probably only about 10 percent of our farmers purchased crop insurance. Lack of familiarity was one reason for that low percentage: It was a relatively new risk management tool for farmers in New England. But the biggest reason was cost. So every time a disaster hit, farmers would have to rely on receiving help through federal disaster bills because they didn’t have crop insurance. Such disaster relief is expensive for taxpayers and painfully slow to deliver help – taking up to one or two years at times – for the farmers who lost everything.

In the mid 90s, the federal government, weary of disaster payments and looking for a better risk management tool, put forward funds to help partially underwrite crop insurance premiums. Today, most farmers in New England and elsewhere have purchased crop insurance policies, which last year covered 80 percent of eligible crops covering 263 million acres.

Crop insurance is also great for consumers because it makes purchasing locally produced food possible. Consumers nowadays are concerned about the origin of their food, the cultural practices used to produce it and its overall safety. Many of us believe that the best food in the world is local, because we know that the farmer down the road has produced a product that is not only delicious but also secure. Without some kind of policy protection in place for those farmers, “buying local” could be a thing of the past.

And in the tight credit markets we live in, crop insurance has proven to be an indispensible tool for farmers seeking lines of credit from banks. When I first started in the business, it was rare to see a lender who would ask about crop insurance. Nowadays it’s almost ubiquitous, particularly for farmers who raise expensive specialty crops, like potatoes and apples.

Crop insurance has already shouldered $12 billion in federal funding cuts in the name of balancing the budget — about 10 percent of the total federal expenditure in 2008 and another cut of 7 percent in 2010. The federal government now spends about $90 billion on crop insurance subsidies. But if the government continues to bleed crop insurance, it will become either unaffordable for farmers to participate or incapable of meeting the challenges when a disaster strikes, or both.

When the next farm bill is written, Congress needs to remember that it should “do no harm” to crop insurance. Those who weathered Irene and lived to plant another day can attest to the fact that a robust crop insurance policy is in the best interest of not only farmers, but consumers as well. The farmers down the road that grow the food for your family and mine need some common-sense protection against Mother Nature. Crop insurance fits the bill.

Art Carroll owns the Arthur Carroll Crop Insurance Agency in Limerick, Maine, which insures farmers in all New England states and New York. This commentary was prepared with assistance from National Crop Insurance Services.

This op-ed ran in the Valley News on May 25, 2012.

 

Crop Insurance A Key to Credit Access, Bankers Tell House Subcommittee

Several witnesses representing key agriculture lending institutions and credit agencies told members of the House Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, and Credit that access to credit is essential for farmers and crop insurance plays an important role in that access. The hearing, held May 10, went largely unnoticed but is pertinent given the need for most farmers to secure credit.

“Crop insurance is important to the adequate supply of credit to farmers and ranchers as it provides assurance that farmers will be able to repay their operating loans in the event of weather or price related calamities,” said Jeff Gerhart, a banker and chairman of the Independent Community Bankers of America.  Gerhart noted that crop insurance was a good risk management tool that their farm customers have learned to use to better manage risk. “The dramatic evolution of crop insurance in meeting the needs of most of our nation’s farmers has been truly impressive,” he said.

Bob Frazee, president and CEO of MidAtlantic Farm Credit, one of 87 Farm Credit cooperatives that is owned by more than 10,500 farmers from the region told the committee that crop insurance gives lenders the peace of mind to loan to farmers in a very risky environment.  “It is extremely important as a lender to agriculture that we know our customers have insured their production,” he said.  “This protects the farmer and it protects lenders as we provide credit to farmers to cover their operating expenses.”

Matthew Williams, testifying on behalf of the American Bankers Association, told the committee that crop insurance provides his customers with “the certainty they need to make responsible planting decisions and provides my bank with the confidence we need to extend credit to our customers.”  Williams reminded the committee that input costs to plant crops today are “staggering,” and explained that his customers use credit to get their crops planted and harvested.  “If federal crop insurance was in some way diminished, our ability to lend – in some cases – would be curtailed,” he added.

Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Fortenberry underscored the importance of access to credit and the essential role it plays in maintaining the United State’s abundant and affordable food supply.  “Ensuring a stable food supply is directly connected to farmers and ranchers having access to steady sources of credit,” he said.

Farmers Sometimes Need A Little Help When Mother Nature Throws a Fit

2011 was a year that American farmers will not soon forget. The year started off with a record freeze in Florida, followed by historic flooding in the Corn Belt. While farmers were trying to salvage their waterlogged fields in the Midwest, folks in the southern plains were baking under intense heat and a prolonged drought, which still hasn’t broken. And then there was Hurricane Irene, that ravaged the East Coast, from North Carolina to the Canadian border.

Thankfully, decades ago, Congress recognized that because Mother Nature is prone to be nasty at times, policies need to be in place to ensure that when she does, farmers are able to pick up the pieces, rebuild and plant again the following year. The policy that has gained national recognition as the best risk management tool available is crop insurance.

Crop insurance is a public-private partnership, designed to ensure that when disaster strikes, the private sector – crop insurance companies – are there to help shoulder the risk and the financial burden of rebuilding. Crop insurance policies are purchased by the farmer and suited to the farmer’s needs, comfort with risk and financial situation.

In the past, before purchasing crop insurance was the widespread and widely available option, disasters like last year’s would have triggered large, stand-alone disaster bills in Congress, aimed at trying to save as many farms as possible. Those bills would have cost taxpayers dearly, and unfortunately, would have taken months, or even several years to finally get into the hands of the farmers who need the help. Not a good situation for either party involved.

In 2011, with 80 percent of eligible lands protected by crop insurance, private sector companies paid out in excess of $10.7 billion in payments to farmers who had purchased plans and suffered losses. Those checks were often in the hands of the farmers in 30 days or less after they completed the necessary paper work. It’s because of the effectiveness and efficiency of crop insurance that many of us are in our fields planting today instead of being forced to auction off our farms.

The notion that crop insurance is some kind of freebee for farmers is nonsense, because a farmer can only collect an insurance payment if he suffers verifiable damages. The idea that a farmer purchases crop insurance in hopes of watching his crops be destroyed makes about as much sense as the notion that a person purchases homeowners insurance and prays every day that his house will burn down.

Not to mention, farmers pay out of their own pockets for a significant part of the insurance premiums. Stand-alone disaster bills, by comparison, are 100 percent funded by taxpayers.

Let’s not forget what it is that we’re asking farmers to do for the nation: Grow our food, grow our fuel, grow our fiber and grow the feed we need for the meat and poultry we like to consume. This is a big responsibility for the tiny fraction of our fellow Americans called farmers.

The taxpayer cost of ensuring security for these basic public needs would have been astronomical in 2011 without privately delivered crop insurance in place. Crop insurance has become the risk management tool of choice by farmers representing the vast majority of American crops and policy-makers representing both sides of the aisle for one simple reason. It works.

Congress is debating the 2012 Farm Bill and our message to them on behalf of farmers and the American public is simple: Do no harm to crop insurance.

John Mages is president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, and lives in Belgrade, Minnesota where he farms with his wife Cindy.

This op-ed appeared on May 11, 2012 on AgNet.

 

Keeping Crop Insurance Strong

This ongoing series presents one of the many strengths of crop insurance per month and details how the sum of the 12 essential crop insurance strengths has given us the successful program we have today. These strengths are especially important as policy makers contemplate further cuts to farm safety net policies.

Strength: Producers do not receive unnecessarily excessive payments.

Crop insurance payments are related to actual crop loss due to price volatility or natural disaster, whereas some farm program payments are not related to need or performance. In addition, a trained crop insurance loss adjuster assesses the producer’s claim, thereby rewarding proper effort and appropriately protecting against events beyond the producer’s control.

To ensure that this safety net policy works properly, crop insurance companies employ more than 4,700 certified crop loss adjusters who are well trained to accurately assess production losses. This ensures the veracity of the policy and helps to reduce waste, fraud and abuse.

To view all of the essential strengths, click here.