Previous Droughts Taught Illinois Farmers How To Manage Risk

Some have said that there is no better place on earth to farm corn than in America’s Corn Belt.  Our soil and climatic conditions for growing corn and soybeans are among the best on earth, and our farmers are hardworking, committed and driven to produce record crops every year.   And in some years, they do.

But drought does occasionally visit the Land of Lincoln, such as the drought of 1983 and the drought of 1988.   And in those years, many hardworking farmers watched their crops wither and their dreams blow away with the dust, because they didn’t have a backup plan in place in case something like this happened.

Today, most farmers purchase crop insurance, which ensures that when drought or flood or early freeze visits our region, farmers have some level of protection to recoup the tens of thousands of dollars they’ve spent trying to raise a crop.

The droughts in the 1980s taught the area farmers that if they relied on disaster payments and subsidized federal loans to bounce back from natural disasters, they were going to eventually fall on their faces.   On the other hand, crop insurance, which today protects almost 90 percent of planted cropland in the U.S, combines the resources of the Federal government with the ingenuity and entrepreneurship of the private sector.

Crop insurance allows individual farmers to purchase the coverage they need, tailored to their farms, their financial standing and their tolerance to risk.   Unlike government programs of the past, crop insurance is a public-private partnership, whereby farmers purchase policies from participating crop insurance companies that are approved by the government, which discounts a portion of those policies to ensure their affordability to all farmers.  In 2012, farmers spent $4.5 billion out of their own back pockets purchasing crop insurance.

Crop insurance has become indispensible because farming is so expensive that banks are afraid to make production loans without a crop insurance policy as collateral.   That way, if the crop fails, the bank, and the farmer, have something to fall back on.

I’ll never forget the drought of 2012.   Farmers calmly walked their fields, yet inside, we all knew we were heading for big trouble.  Well before the harvest, the corn was burning up and the plants themselves were stunted.   In some parts of the state, corn crops were condemned but the plants were so small they could hardly be chopped for silage.

But unlike previous droughts I had witnessed, there was a sense of optimism in the farmers I knew.  They were more upbeat and positive because they had adequate protection and they could bounce back.  And guess what?  Everyone bounced back in 2013 and produced an enormous harvest for the nation.

In 2014, Illinois farmers spent $302 million to purchase 124,000 crop insurance policies protecting 19 million acres valued at nearly $11 billion.

We live in one of the richest nations in the world and virtually anything you want to eat is right at your fingertips.  But that doesn’t occur by accident.  It’s possible due to good farm policies and hardworking farmers, who together produce the cheapest and most reliable food in the world.

Nowhere else has been able to compare to the efficiency we’ve achieved in this country.   And I’ll be forever proud of that fact.

Bill Christ farms about 1,400 acres and lives in Metamora, Illinois.  This op-ed appeared in the Peoria Journal Star on November 8, 2014.