It was 2010 and I was expecting to harvest my best crop. I had done everything right and the weather had been kind. Or so I thought. Then on a late October night, it hailed for six hours and what was anticipated to be my best crop year turned into nothing. But the worst of it was yet to come. It stopped raining. It stopped for 336 days straight. It kicked off what would be the worst drought since the 1950s. The conditions would improve slightly, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that for the last five years, my part of the world—West Texas—has essentially been on fire.
Mother Nature is the toughest, most unpredictable boss. Farmers are resilient and they adapt, but a safety net is crucial to their survival. And, it’s not a safety net if it’s not affordable.
That’s what today’s crop insurance offers farmers. A safety net that is both affordable and widely available. It’s what’s helped me make it to the next year.
That hasn’t always been the case. When crop insurance got its start in the 1930s, it was a poorly run government program. It hobbled along through the 60s and 70s, but the premiums were too high so the participation was low with limited available coverage. Farmers mainly relied on costly ad hoc disaster assistance when natural disasters wiped out their crops.
It was so ineffective that the Secretary of Agriculture, Bob Bergland, told Congress in 1977 that disaster programs “are for the most part…a disaster.” This gave birth to the Federal Crop Insurance Act of 1980 that created a successful public-private partnership that remains today. Since then there have been other pieces of legislation along the way that have made additional improvements to the delivery and mechanics of crop insurance with the most recent being the 2014 farm bill.
Sadly, there are some who don’t know or understand the history and improvements that have taken place through the years. Meanwhile, there are others who are bent on attacking farm policy regardless.
I was reminded of this on a recent visit to Washington, D.C. where I met with lawmakers and staff on behalf of producers across the country. Each time I visit I am struck by how important outreach is to ensure agriculture remains successful in this country and that crop insurance remains a viable, affordable and widely available safety net for farmers and ranchers.
I tend to walk away both encouraged and discouraged by my visits. I am encouraged because there are some who understand the challenges that we face and discouraged because there is always more to be done. The battle never ends, and we need more voices in support of American agriculture.
Our form of government requires participation. When we don’t show up and tell our story then, without a doubt, someone who doesn’t understand or care about production agriculture and the importance of crop insurance will fill the void.
We’ve each sat in the tractor cab or with our neighbors in the coffee shop and talked to ourselves about how to make things better, but that’s not the way to drive real change in Washington or anywhere else. Sometimes you have to get off the tractor and reach out beyond those circles in your own community.
We can’t assume policymakers understand the anxiety we feel when we’re days away from harvesting a good crop and it’s destroyed in a matter of minutes by something beyond our control. We can’t assume policymakers know the one thing that enables us to start again is crop insurance. It’s up to us to tell them.
Wade Cowan is the president of the American Soybean Association. He farms soybeans, guar, cotton, wheat and grain sorghum in West Texas. This op-ed appeared in the High Plains Journal on April 6, 2015.