Living on a Prayer

By John Thamert

Agriculture is collectively holding its breath as the “super committee” meets to determine where the $1.2 trillion worth of federal budget funds will be cut. Having already shouldered more than $12 billion in cuts for deficit reduction in the past several years, farmers and ranchers feel the pain that other sectors have yet to experience.

With this massive overhaul on the horizon, the Senate Agriculture Committee traveled to Wichita, Kansas, late last month to hear from farmers, bankers and local elected officials about what they thought were the necessary components of a strong and viable Farm Bill.

Farmers representing every crop from corn to cotton, bankers who loan to businesses of all sizes, and key elected officials all delivered one main message that was eventually heard all the way back to the halls of Congress: Crop insurance is one of the most important components of farm policy—it should not be touched.

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), the committee’s chair, recognizes that the upcoming farm bill will not only impact farmers and ranchers; it will also affect those workers who process, package and market agricultural products and services.

This is no small item when you consider that there are over 21 million jobs tied directly to the U.S. agricultural industry.
Obviously, crop insurance is not a policy used by every American—particularly those in urban areas who write about it. But as a banker, a farmer, and a resident of rural America, I see firsthand the benefits of crop insurance and its essential place in a farmer’s arsenal of risk management tools. “Some folks question the need for a Farm Bill with commodity prices where they are today,” Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS), the committee’s ranking member said. “I don’t have to tell this crowd that prices can fall much more quickly than they rise.”

So let me explain why farmers and agricultural lenders from all corners of the country are crying out in unison for maintaining crop insurance.

Crop insurance is a public-private partnership that combines the flexibility and efficiency of the free market with the support of the public sector, to ensure that a modest government investment is able to provide an economic “safety net” for a very unpredictable and high-risk industry.

In so doing, when farmers and/or ranchers experience a severe reduction in their cash flow due to a natural disaster they can depend on crop insurance to cover some of the loss. Any claim paid to a farmer or rancher will create dollars that can be used to cover operating loans from their bank, to pay for fuel, crop and machinery costs; all of which flow through the economies of our country’s small towns and rural communities.

Farmers need crop insurance as an economic “safety net”. Consumers need crop insurance so that they can take comfort in knowing that one of our nation’s premier industries, which provides an abundant and affordable food supply, will remain viable. And lenders need crop insurance in order to be confident that their investment in agriculture will be sound—and around it goes.

One other important consideration is helping the next generation of farmers and ranchers continue our nation’s dominance in food production. Finding a lender willing to invest in a young farmer is hard enough as it is. More often than not, they have very little capital. In these times of rising input costs, a volatile world economy and unpredictable weather patterns, the one thing that lenders and their young farm customers are able to rely on is the crop insurance policy.

“Certainly, farmers here in Kansas know the importance of a strong farm safety net,” Senator Stabenow said at the hearing. “You’ve been dealing with a record drought this year that is devastating crops and livestock production. Suffice it to say, if we ever needed a reminder about the risks farmers face, we got it this year.”

She’s right. Without crop insurance, I’m not sure that my operation would still exist—and the same goes for many of my neighbors—not just in Kansas but in the Texas panhandle where they haven’t seen a drop of rain since October 17, and Missouri, where flooding has left thousands of acres under water and unproductive.

The Senate Agriculture Committee asked for our input: “What are the risk management tools that farmers in the great state of Kansas need? What should an effective farm safety net look like? What are your priorities? What programs can we streamline or consolidate?” And the answer was nearly unanimous: No more cuts to one of the few remaining – and in most farmers’ judgment, the best – risk management tools. If you must cut from agriculture, do not cut crop insurance.

To our farmers and ranchers dealing with severe drought or other natural disasters, these are very trying times; to see high prices without any product to sell and yet have to put out next year’s crop with record high input costs. Without crop insurance, these producers would go out of business as well as cause economic harm to a number of their business providers. I would ask my fellow farmers and bankers to contact their senators and representatives and convey the magnitude of our concerns. Farming without strong farm policy, is nothing but living on a prayer.

John C. Thaemert is a Vice President & Trust Officer at Citizens State Bank & Trust Co. in Ellsworth, Kansas as well as past president of the National Association of Wheat Growers. Thaemert is a third generation farmer who resides in Sylvan Grove, Kansas.

This op-ed appeared in Agri-Pulse on September 6, 2011.