Although Federal Crop Insurance has been around since 1938, it was largely unused by the farmers because it was either unaffordable, unavailable, or both. Instead, when farmers experienced widespread losses from natural disasters like floods, hail, or hurricanes they turned to Congress for ad hoc disaster assistance.
According to the Congressional Research Service, that assistance has cost taxpayers in excess of $70 billion since 1989. With taxpayers opposed to the cost of the program and farmers unable to pay expenses due to the time it took to deliver relief, Congress acted. That action came in the form of the Federal Crop Insurance Act, which expanded crop insurance, making it affordable and accessible to our nation’s farmers.
With the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, Congress ended direct payments and other similar programs. Today, if farmers wish to manage the risk posed by Mother Nature and market swings, they must purchase crop insurance.
Crop insurance is a public-private partnership that provides farmers with risk management tools that can be tailored to their needs. The cost is shared by farmers, who pay premiums and have deductibles, as well as participating crop insurance companies and the federal government who shoulder a portion of losses.
And crop insurance has had plenty of opportunity to prove its worth to New England farmers. In 2011, the arrival of Tropical Storm Irene turned the regions’ creeks into torrents and flooded many of the area’s croplands right before harvest. Farmers who needed the field crops that had yet to be harvested watched in despair, as those fields were first swallowed and then erased by Mother Nature.
Thankfully, many of those farmers had purchased crop insurance, and private sector companies who assessed the damage had indemnity checks to the farmers usually within weeks or months, not the years that federal disaster assistance can take. This allowed New England farmers to bounce back and be in full production again in 2012, ensuring rural economies didn’t suffer any long-term damages.
Last year, farmers spent $3.8 billion out of their own pockets purchasing crop insurance nationally. Those policies protected 295 million acres of farmland valued at $129 billion. Today, 90 percent of planted cropland was protected by federal crop insurance, which today protects 128 different varieties of crops, ranging from commodities like corn to fresh vegetables.
New England is unique, both in the types of farming we do and the markets we serve. Many of our smaller and diversified farmers sell directly to consumers and the variety of crops raised limit their option for crop insurance. The 2014 Farm Bill created the Whole Farm Revenue Protection Program to address the needs of diversified farmers and offer roughly equivalent crop insurance products to them. Whole farm protection policies are especially important to New England farmers who are now dealing with the increased weather fluctuations caused by climate change, which has triggered a 73 percent increase in extreme weather events in New England.
Agriculture has always played an important role in the New England economy. It is not only part of our heritage, but it is topic of growing importance to consumers who wish to know more about their food. New England farmers, whether they are dairymen, fruit and vegetable growers, or any other combination we see in our rural landscape, need a safety net to guard against events beyond their control. By ensuring crop insurance remains affordable, available and viable we will ensure the continuation of our farms for the benefit of consumers and rural towns across the region.
Roger Noonan is president of New England Farmers Union.