Crop Insurance Is Critical for this Nation’s Fresh Produce Industry

Sometimes, timing is everything. And for fresh fruits and vegetables, there has been a recent convergence of trends and preferences that bode well for the industry.

The first is the federal government’s decision to ensure that more fresh fruits and vegetables are consumed as part of the school meal programs, which will expose children who would otherwise have limited access to these important foods. The other trend is the locavore – or eating local – movement, that underscores the importance of buying local and eating fresh produce.

But to ensure that fresh fruits and vegetables are available for a population that is increasingly asking for them, we need to have wise public policies in place that help the farmers who grow these important foods to manage the many risks they face brought on by Mother Nature.

And for specialty crop growers – farmers who grow this nation’s fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and berries – the quintessential risk management tool is crop insurance.

Many of the public policies that underpin food production – typically known as farm programs – chiefly support the major food and feed commodities like corn, wheat and soybeans. Those crops and the programs that support them are critical and have been a major factor behind why the United States is a global player in food production.

But for those raising specialty crops, crop insurance is the only public policy tool available to deal with extreme weather patterns. Crop insurance is a public-private partnership whereby farmers purchase their own policies to cover the risks they choose to pay for. And farmers are quite happy to purchase it, having spent $4.1 billion out of their own pockets in 2012.

There has been a lot of media attention about the historic drought of 2012, and deservedly so. But that drought was preceded by a very devastating late spring freeze here in New England that nearly wiped out a year’s worth of income for many of the growers who raise this nation’s fresh apples.

Without the protection of crop insurance, these growers might have been completely knocked out of business from such a devastating freeze. And the ones who hadn’t purchased crop insurance might have been. But the majority of the region’s farmers who purchase crop insurance every year, were able to bounce back from the freeze, continue to care for their orchards and prepare for the 2013 crop.

But having just one bad year would have actually been good news for me. Six out the last seven years, I’ve had hail damage on my apple crop. Last year, I lost 90 percent of my apple crop on that late frost and then the other ten percent was demolished by hail. For my peaches, another big crop on my farm, I’ve also had major losses 6 out of the last 7 years. Needless to say, if I hadn’t purchased crop insurance, I would have had many lean years in a row.

Since crop insurance is sold, managed and delivered by the private sector, when disaster strikes, indemnity checks usually arrive less than a month after the paperwork is completed. In the past, when farmers would rely on disaster assistance from the federal government, it took months, or more than a year in some cases, for those funds to finally reach the hands of the growers who had lost everything. And for a grower whose entire apple crop has just been frozen, a year can be about 11 months too long.

Crop insurance is available for 128 different crops, and that list is expanding. In some ways, the abundance of America’s farm sector seems like a miracle, but it’s not. If it weren’t for hard work, investment, infrastructure and crop insurance to manage some of the major risks, there might be a lot fewer consumers enjoying America’s fresh fruits and vegetables.

Tom March grows fruits and vegetables on his farm, which has been in the family since 1915, in Bethlehem, Connecticut.

This op-ed appeared in the Hartford Courant on July 29, 2013.