Keep crop insurance affordable in new Farm Bill

Bing Von Bergen.jpgThere is a lot of buzz in Washington again this year about the prospects of a farm bill. For those of us in agriculture, a five-year farm bill is one of the few things Congress can do to take some of the guesswork out of farming.

That’s because farming is an inherently risky venture, and Mother Nature never seems to run out of tricks to play on America’s farmers. Floods one year, droughts the next, followed by a year or two of great weather peppered with a tornado, a late-spring freeze, and then a crash in commodity prices just as your crop comes into harvest.

How in the world can one businessman plan for all of those possibilities? The simple answer is crop insurance.

Crop insurance is a nationwide program that enables farmers to purchase insurance to partially protect themselves from both weather-related and market-related disasters. I’ve been a wheat farmer for 34 years, and when I started farming, crop insurance was just a shell of what it is now. Back then, it was not widely available, was not purchased by many farmers, and was completely administered by the federal government.

Today’s crop insurance policy is a completely different animal. It’s partially underwritten by the federal government but sold and delivered by private sector insurance companies, ensuring efficient handling of claims and speedy delivery of indemnities when claims are filed. Today, it protects about 86 percent of planted cropland in the United States.

Most Reliable Safety Net

Farmers today find crop insurance to be critical, and in 2012, they spent $4.1 billion out of their own pockets to purchase its protection. One thing that farmers today can agree on, despite which commodity they grow, is that in the next farm bill, crop insurance is a top priority. It’s our principal, and most reliable safety net.

As unbelievable as it sounds, during last summer’s great drought, which was the worst this country had seen since the Dust Bowl years, there were groups claiming that “farmers are praying for drought, not praying for rain.” People who make an appalling statement like that have no business talking about agriculture.

But those same groups are calling for big changes in crop insurance.

One of those changes is an idea called means testing. In a nutshell, means testing would force many large farmers to pay more for their federal crop insurance coverage, which could keep many of them from buying any crop insurance coverage at all.

Means testing would be a big mistake and could spell higher premiums for all farmers who purchase crop insurance. Why? Because by parsing out the biggest farmers, the pool of insured shrinks and thus the risk for those remaining gets bigger. For example, if a car insurance company excluded the best drivers from their pool of insured, the only drivers left would be those who are the riskiest, and thus the costliest to insure. This fact would drive up the premiums for all remaining drivers.

Risky Montana business

The fact is that farming in Montana is riskier than in other parts of the country because our rainfall is generally much less than in the Corn Belt. The fear for me as a wheat producer is that means testing would alter the mix of those who purchase crop insurance and skew it against those of us who are in the high-risk areas. Premiums in Montana, and through out the rest of wheat country, will go up.

Think about it this way: this country has faced back-to-back years of major natural disasters. The year 2011 saw record floods, freezes, droughts and even a hurricane. Then 2012 was the worst drought we’ve seen in decades. Yet despite this level of farm loss, there wasn’t a single call to Washington for a farm disaster bill for cropland. That’s because most farmers were already protected by crop insurance policies they had purchased for themselves.

When Congress begins its discussion of the next farm bill, crop insurance is sure to be a key topic of conversation. Congress should remember a simple saying that has been my north star through my life: “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” Congress should do no harm to crop insurance.

Bing Von Bergen, the president and acting CEO of the National Association of Wheat Growers, is a farmer from Mocassin, Montanta. This op-ed appeared in the Billings Gazette on April 27, 2013.