South Dakota’s history is deeply rooted in agriculture, perhaps more so than any other state in the union. From the homesteaders who came here in the 19th century, with little more than a plow and a dream, to their descendants who still work the land, agriculture is the way of life for many South Dakotans.
As the president of the S.D. Farm Bureau and a livestock, corn and soybean farmer myself, I can tell you firsthand that our state’s farmers personify a work ethic and a sense of pride and purpose that we are seeing less and less of outside of agriculture these days.
But agriculture is more than just a proud tradition — it’s also S.D.’s top industry, with a $25.6 billion economic impact each year. Our farmers and ranchers generate 20 percent of our state’s economic activity and provide jobs, directly and indirectly, to 122,000 residents.
It’s essential that we preserve S.D.’s farm economy, not just for our own economic well-being, but for all Americans. Our nation’s farmers play an indispensable role in ensuring a safe, affordable and stable food supply. And this role is becoming increasingly important as we struggle to meet the needs of a growing world population. In short, food security is a vital part of our national security and that’s something we need now more than ever.
Unfortunately, our farm economy has seen better days. Our farm families are facing a year of projected below-cost returns on corn, soybeans and wheat. Overall, farm income is also projected to decrease again in 2016. This will be the third consecutive year of declining farm income, following sharp drops in 2014 and 2015 totaling 56 percent in those two years. If the 2016 income projection comes to fruition, it would mark the lowest farm income level since 2002.
This is why having a sufficient farm safety net — with crop insurance as the cornerstone — is more critical than ever. Crop insurance provides protection against the one thing that even the most resilient farmer cannot defeat — the wrath of Mother Nature.
Crop insurance is a unique public-private partnership that not only supports farmers, but eases the burden on taxpayers. Prior to the emergence of crop insurance as the top risk management tool for farmers, natural disasters regularly resulted in very expensive, unbudgeted ad hoc disaster bills from Congress. Now, when disaster strikes, farmers receive an indemnity check.
Let’s be clear, crop insurance is not a handout — far from it. To gain coverage, farmers have to put skin in the game. In fact, since 2000, farmers have spent nearly $30 billion out of their own pockets to purchase crop insurance protection. We only collect an indemnity after we’ve suffered a verifiable loss and met our deductible.
We purchase crop insurance for our family farm every year and have never filed a major claim. But that’s hardly the point. Like our fellow farmers, we purchase crop insurance for the same reasons we purchase home insurance or car insurance — with the hope we’ll never need it. But we’ll keep purchasing it every year because some day we might. Crop insurance gives us peace of mind, and if we ever experience a major crop disaster, would provide us with the resources to keep farming.
Farmers have faced tough times before and rest assured we will get through them again. Old fashioned hard work, innovation and smart farm policies like crop insurance will help ensure that the proud S.D. farming tradition will live on for many future generations, and, in turn, will secure a bright future for us all.
Scott VanderWal is a third-generation family farmer from Volga. He is president of the South Dakota Farm Bureau and vice-president of the American Farm Bureau. This op-ed appeared in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader on August 9, 2016.