Nearly every civilization in human history has had some form of farm policy because of agriculture’s importance. The United States is no different, and its farm policy history can be traced back to colonial times. Through the years, public support for agriculture has taken many forms, from investments in research and education to disaster aid and individual commodity programs. That journey has led us to today’s safety net, with crop insurance as its centerpiece.

Although Federal crop insurance has been around since 1938, for more than half a century it was largely unknown and underused. Because of this, natural disaster management was mostly accomplished in the form of costly ad hoc disasters bills. These bills were not only slow in delivering assistance, but also fell fully on the laps of taxpayers to fund.

Following repeated weather disasters in the 1980s, accompanied by an equally painful farm debt crisis, Congress turned to the General Accounting Office (GAO) for guidance on how to better structure farm policy. The resulting GAO report would help pave the way for today’s safety net.

GAO noted “crop insurance treats disaster victims more equitably” and “provides farmers disaster assistance more efficiently because farmers generally have more incentive to reduce risk under the program than they do under loan and direct payment programs.”

And so, crop insurance began its evolution from a small part of the 1980 Farm Bill to a program that insures 90 percent of farmland today. Legislation in 1994, 2000 and 2014 helped spur more private-sector involvement, made the program more actuarially sound, encouraged participation, and improved coverage availability.

Now, farmers design risk management plans that work best for them, and when disaster strikes, private insurers process claims and speed payments to growers—usually within weeks rather than months or years. Best of all, taxpayer risk is lessened because farmers and private-sector insurers share in the program’s cost.

Watch a video about the evolution of farm policy here.

*Updated August 2018