CROP INSURANCE IN ACTION: Bill Bridgeforth, Tanner, Alabama

“In a typical year, with five different crops in the ground, it seems like we farm all the time,” said Bill Bridgeforth, a fourth generation farmer from Tanner, Alabama, in the state’s northeast corner. Bridgeforth farms 10,000 acres of cotton, corn, soybeans and canola with his brother Gregory and their sons.

“I’ve always wanted to farm,” he said, adding “I always enjoyed working with my father and brothers.” Bridgeport explained that being a farmer in the Deep South could be a mixed blessing. On the positive side is the region’s extended growing period, which allows double cropping.

“Typically, we start planting our corn on March 10, plant soybeans on April 10, and cotton on April 25,” he explained. “By May 25, we harvest our canola, and then plant soybeans behind the canola,” he said. “And then we harvest wheat on June 5 and plant soybeans behind that wheat,” he added.

But the negative side of the extended growing season is the extreme weather swings, like powerful thunderstorms, tornadoes and hurricanes that can also plague the region. “There’s just so much variability in the weather here in the south,” he said.

That’s why Bridgeforth buys crop insurance every year. In fact, he’s purchased crop insurance policies for the last 35 years in a row. “I can’t even think about farming without crop insurance,” he said.

“We buy crop insurance because the cost of production is so high, you’d have to be crazy to not purchase crop insurance every year,” he said. Bridgeforth explained that with input costs rising every year, it costs more and more to put all of his crops into the ground. “We have to have crop insurance in case we have a bad year, or a bad crop, and we need to have some help making ends meet,” he said.

The cost of farming on an operation the size of Bridgeforth’s would be staggering to those outside of agriculture, who are likely unfamiliar with the high cost of production faced by modern farmers. Crop insurance is no exception to that rule.

Bridgeforth says that they spend several hundred thousand dollars a year purchasing crop insurance, but that isn’t even their biggest cost of production, given the high input costs they face. “When I do our budget, I don’t think twice about buying crop insurance, it’s just like buying fuel, seed and fertilizer,” he said.

Although most years are good for Bridgeforth, having crop insurance as a line item in his budget paid off in 2012, as northeast Alabama, and much of the center of the country, found itself strangled by a historic drought.

The drought began with an extremely hot May and June, and produced the worst corn crop Bridgeforth had ever had. “It was so bad, that while we would ordinarily start harvesting our corn on the 20th of August, we started picking it on the 15th of July,” he said. “Because there really wasn’t much there in the field and it made better sense to get it picked,” he said.

In addition to his busy schedule farming, Bridgeforth is also the Chairman and a charter member of the National Black Growers Council, which was founded three years ago and serves as a network for black men and women who are involved in agriculture. “Our mission is to improve the viability and profitability of the black row crop farmers,” he said. “And we hope to develop black talent for the next generation of farmers.”

The advice he would give to all the growers he knows, says Bridgeforth, is to purchase crop insurance every year. “There are lots of challenges facing a farmer: the weather, the cost of production, the cost of labor, and of course a market that can fluctuate wildly,” he said. “Just a good crop is not enough. You need to have a good crop and a good price.”