CROP INSURANCE IN ACTION: Bob and Mike Buntin, Thompsonville, Illinois

The choices Illinois farmers faced in the past when drought struck the Midwest were unpleasant all around. They could borrow money from family, drain their hard-earned savings or go under.

In the last decade, crop insurance has made it possible for brothers Robert (Bob) and Michael Buntin, owners of Buntin Bros., Inc. in Thompsonville, to avoid any of that even as this summer’s severe drought hit the state. For those without such a buffer, said Bob, 72, “It’s like losing a job. You get by the best you can.”

Thompsonville, with a population of nearly 600, is bordered on the south by Kentucky and on the east by Indiana.

This past summer, the entire state of Illinois experienced varying degrees of drought — worsened by excessive heat — causing crops to shrivel and die from the blistering temperatures.

The Buntins operate a 5,000-acre family farm, planted to corn, soybeans and wheat. This drought has been the worst since 1988, said Bob, and their yield this year is projected to be a little lower than ever before. From 147 bushels of corn per acre, 60 bushels of wheat and 45 bushels of soybeans, he sees production this year slowing to an average of 15 bushels each for soybeans and corn and “above average” for wheat.

“We’re tired of the dry weather,” he said. “This is the worst this year.”

This year, the brothers wrote a crop insurance premium check for more than a $100,000; “You don’t pay monthly like most insurance companies,” said Bob. “You just write one check.”

And like a regular car insurance policy, they make sure they are covered for one year at a time. “You never know when your car is going to break down. You reapply every year so you can change your options.”

Bob says the process of purchasing crop insurance and filing for a claim is uncomplicated with very little paperwork. “If you keep your records straight, what kind of yield you get and report all these to government offices, it makes it easier,” he said.

“We’re going to be all right this year,” he noted. Such confidence comes from part wisdom, part history: A lower crop production traditionally results in higher prices. The Buntins are buoyed by current market prices at sky-high levels, which, Bob said, “should cover my losses this year.”

The brothers recalled past years when their farm faced weather-related crises. “It was dry here last year, dry here in 1983 and dry here in 1988, and you go back to the 1930s and the ‘50s.”

The U.S. has been experiencing extreme weather over the last few years, with 2012 now judged as the hottest year on record. The number of disasters that have run up costs into the billions of dollars have multiplied sharply since the beginning of the century.

In 2011, the worst drought in a hundred years crippled Texas, the biggest producer of cotton in the U.S. The next year, the drought moved to the Heartland.

But in addition to worrying about the weather, there are some ideas being floated in Congress that are causing some concerns as well. “I don’t think there should be a cap on insurance policy,” Bob mused, arguing how a farmer with 500 acres or 5,000 acres should be allowed to take out a policy based on his own needs.

“You got all the expenses; the big guy’s got more expenses than the little guy, but he’s got expenses, too,” he said. For a farmer who is just getting started, the banks will strongly insist that he get insurance for his own protection “at least to some degree.”

“Even the big, more established farms can’t afford to take a hit three or four years in a row,” said Bob, who has been farming since he was a young man in his teens. And the family tradition of farming will continue as one of Bob’s sons two grandsons have joined him and their uncle in meeting the upcoming challenges to feed a hungry world.