Good Farming Practices Aren’t Always Enough

It is hard to talk about the state of Alabama without mentioning agriculture. Alabama boasts more than 48,000 farms, covering roughly 28 percent of the state.

But being a farmer in the Deep South – given our weather patterns – is like owning an unpredictable dog. One day it loves you, the next day, it bites you.

In farming, when that dog decides to bite you, it comes in the form of powerful thunderstorms, hurricanes or droughts. That’s why for every year of the last thirty-five years that I’ve farmed, I purchase crop insurance. In fact, I can’t even conceive of farming without crop insurance.

In the past, when large-scale natural disasters hit farmers, Congress was immediately pressured to pass expensive, ad hoc disaster bills that were completely paid for by the public. Such disaster bills, while appreciated by farmers, took up to a year or more to arrive. But farmers need money in hand quickly after disaster strikes, because they must start planning, and purchasing inputs, for the next season.

That’s the beauty of crop insurance. First of all, taxpayers aren’t stuck footing the whole bill if and when disaster strikes. Crop insurance is purchased by each individual farmer, tailored specifically to the crops grown, the land the farm sits on and the farmer’s tolerance for risk.

Crop insurance isn’t cheap by any stretch of the imagination. The policies I purchase cost several hundred thousand dollars a year. But I consider that just a cost of production, because if disaster strikes, I can expect my crop insurance indemnity in about a month or less, not the years it takes for federal help to arrive. Those months saved can mean the difference between success and failure in farming.

Farmers across the country spent $4.1 billion purchasing crop insurance policies in 2012. The policies purchased insured 271 million acres, or roughly 86 percent of all planted cropland in the U.S.

But farmers aren’t the only group that has come to love crop insurance. Bankers love it too. That’s because when farmers approach bankers for production loans, bankers regard a crop insurance policy as a form of collateral. Additionally, bankers know that a farmer who has paid his own money for a crop insurance policy is a farmer who has risk management in mind.

Of course like any other public policy, crop insurance has its enemies. Some of those groups used last year’s historic drought to not only criticize the availability of crop insurance, but to also attack the character of farmers like me, who purchase it. One group said that farmers were “praying for drought, not rain,” implying that farmers would get rich from their crop insurance policies.

I was one of those farmers who suffered from the drought last year and let me set the record straight: We do everything we can to have the highest production possible every year. We select a good variety of seed, purchase the best fertilizer and do everything we can to protect the crop. If there ever were any farmers trying to live off of crop insurance, they’re long gone. The cost of production is just too high.

But if America is going to continue to enjoy its plentiful and affordable food supply, the country must also focus on helping the next generation of farmers to gain their footing and learn the trade. To that end, I am a founding member and Chairman of the National Black Growers Council, which 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, and to develop black talent for the next generation of farmers.

To that next generation of farmers who is seeking my advice, one of the first things I’d tell them is to make sure crop insurance is a line item in your annual budget. Because all of the best farming practices in the world aren’t going to stop Mother Nature from raining on your parade, at least every now and then.

Bill Bridgeforth farms corn, cotton, soybeans and canola and lives in Tanner, Alabama.

This op-ed appeared in the Athens News Courier, on April 26, 2013.