Thankfully, There Are Ways to Deal With Droughts Like This

As a cotton farmer in West Texas, last year I felt that I had about as much of a chance of seeing a good soaking rain as I did of running into the Tooth Fairy when I stopped by my local dentist.

Unfortunately for the area farmers, much of the cotton in this part of Texas that was planted never even sprouted, leaving farmers hoping for a miracle but expecting the worst.  Luckily, for the vast majority of them, they had purchased a risk management tool that would serve as a backstop when a disaster like this strikes, ensuring that they would survive to farm yet another day.  That tool was crop insurance.

Crop insurance is the risk management tool preferred by most farmers across the country – about 80 percent of eligible U.S. lands are covered by a policy – because it combines the efficiency of the private sector with the universality of the public sector.

One of the most popular efficiencies of this public/private partnership afforded to those who purchase crop insurance policies is its speed of delivery when crops fail or markets crash.   Typically, when a farmer files a claim, the crop insurance company that holds that policy will have the indemnity to the farmer within thirty days of the finalization of the paperwork.  This is real money coming to the farmer in real time, allowing him to plant again or plan to plant the next year.

Government programs, on the other hand, while very well intentioned, just aren’t realistic, at least not from a business point of view.  For example, the SURE program, which many farmers depended on, is just now – in early 2012 –  providing benefits to farmers who suffered losses in 2009.  That’s just too long to wait for assistance if it’s really going to be helpful or effective.

Crop insurance, on the other hand, gets to the growers quickly, allowing them to bounce back from loss and prepare for the next season.  Many of the cotton farmers in Texas who lost nearly everything last summer, for example, had their indemnity payments in hand before Labor Day.  That makes a world of difference for somebody who has suddenly lost their livelihood and won’t be able to farm again if help doesn’t arrive soon.

Another reason why crop insurance has become the most preferred tool in almost every farmer’s risk management tool belt is because the individualized nature of each policy.  Instead of a big government plan allotting a specified amount of help based on an average amount of loss, crop insurance policies are tailored to the farmer, his or her tolerance for risk, and the strengths and weaknesses of their farm.

Each spring, a crop insurance agent meets with the individual farmer and together, they come up with a plan to manage that specific farm’s risk.  It’s not the federal government’s plan; nor is it the state’s plan or the county’s plan.

It’s the farmer’s plan.   And who would know better than the individual farmer about what their piece of land can handle, what kinds of stress it can tolerate, and how much loss they can withstand as an individual.

While farmers are charged with raising the food, feed and fiber to feed and clothe our great nation, the nation realizes that we are merely individuals who can easily be stomped on by an angry and unforgiving Mother Nature.  That’s why it’s in the nation’s best interest – as well as the best interest of farmers – to ensure that moving forward, a robust and effective crop insurance policy is part of any Farm Bill discussion.

I didn’t see the Tooth Fairy the last time I went to the dentist, but thankfully I have seen some rain.  Some, but not enough.  And according to most experts, this drought is supposed to continue.  But regardless, for those of us who farm for a living, with the purchase of a crop insurance policy, we have purchased our chance to farm yet another year to feed, clothe and fuel the nation we love.

Shawn L. Holladay, chairman of the American Cotton Producers Farm Policy Task Force, lives in Lubbock, Texas.

This op-ed appeared in the Amarillo Globe-News on March 23, 2012.