Crop Insurance Basics: Risk Mitigation and Risk Management

Risk mitigation and risk management are two sides of the same coin when it comes to improving agricultural outcomes and promoting climate-smart decisions.

On the front of the coin, we have risk mitigation. This side represents all the steps farmers and ranchers take to reduce the amount of risk they face. For example, farmers utilizing precision ag technology, new seed varieties, or conservation practices like reduced tillage and cover cropping can increase their resiliency by improving yields and soil health.

On the back of the coin, we have risk management. This side represents all the steps farmers and ranchers take to manage the costs and impacts of the many uncontrolled risks they still face. Agriculture’s primary risk management tool is crop insurance, which is delivered by private-sector insurers and is partially funded by farmers through premiums.

For optimal effectiveness, these two sides should work in concert, not conflict, to encourage conservation while ensuring the ability of farmers and ranchers to continue operating after a disaster.

Crop insurance must be flexible enough to embrace the newest tools, technologies, and techniques being used to improve the land, conserve resources, increase operating efficiencies, and mitigate risk. Conversely, new conservation efforts must be consistent with the economics that underpin crop insurance’s widely successful risk management strategy.

These facts were reinforced by a recent study published in the renowned peer-reviewed Journal of Environmental Management. It noted that crop insurance is not a barrier to the adoption of conservation practices and is key to helping farmers maintain healthy soil.

The public-private partnership of crop insurance has evolved over the years to become the cornerstone of America’s farm safety net policy. And it has stood the test of time because of built-in flexibility responding to any situation that Mother Nature presents.

Specifically, the system is built on constant data analysis, up-to-date good farming practices, and actuarial soundness, which means premiums for coverage generally cover expected indemnities over the long term.

Crop insurance encourages smart farming practices on the most productive land through a self-correcting premium rating and underwriting system. In short, farmers who have a strong Actual Production History (APH) get better premium rates and thus lower premiums relative to their higher yields. Lower premiums motivate farmers to mitigate risk and build strong production histories with higher yields.

Crop insurance is also constantly improving, which is imperative as farmers deal with the ill effects of extreme weather. Section 508(h) of the Federal Crop Insurance Act allows for the private submission of crop insurance policy ideas and sets forth clear criteria for policy approvals by the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation Board of Directors.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also works to continually improve crop insurance through the development of new policies. For example, the new Hurricane Insurance Protection – Wind Index Endorsement coverage arrived just in time to help offset devastating losses from the string of hurricanes that occurred during 2020. This new option was quickly added to fill a need in the agricultural community, and in its first year of implementation, it helped farmers rebound from eight significant wind events.

The new hurricane program – just like insurance products covering more than 130 crops in this country – works because it is rooted in sound science and economic principles.  These fundamentals of actuarial soundness will be essential as policymakers look for ways to encourage farmers to adopt more and more conservation practices. Policymakers must not lower insurance premium rates without proper justification – to do so would only place the entire risk management system in jeopardy and arbitrarily punish the farmers it serves.

Instead, incentives should reward farmers for their actions without upending actuarial soundness. State governments in Iowa, Indiana, and Illinois have found a way to do this with local programs that help offset a portion of farmers’ insurance costs.

In other words, the two sides of the coin must continue working together as they are designed to do.

Crop Insurance 101

Crop insurance is a critical program for maintaining our nation’s supply of food, fuel and fiber. It helps farmers and ranchers navigate the risks of farming and plant again after a disaster while providing them the necessary stability to continue investing in long-term conservation practices.

But with terms like “Actual Production History” or “Whole-Farm Revenue Protection,” it might sometimes feel like you need to be an insurance whiz to fully understand how this public-private partnership works.

That’s why National Crop Insurance Services (NCIS) put together CropInsurance101.org.

There, the public and policymakers can learn more about the history of crop insurance and how it works today to protect farmers and ranchers.

We’ve recently added a wealth of new content:

  • Links to the entire “Crop Insurance Basics” series, which explores crop insurance concepts in an easy-to-understand way.
  • Information on a peer-reviewed study in the Journal of Environmental Management which found that crop insurance is not a barrier to the adoption of conservation practices and plays a role in helping farmers maintain healthy soil.
  • New glossary definitions, including important program elements like Good Farming Practices and Section 508(h) submissions.
  • Farmer testimonials sharing how crop insurance is an indispensable part of their risk management toolkit.

Over the past year, farmers and ranchers have faced untold challenges, ranging from a global pandemic to devastating weather events. Looking forward, they’re building on decades of best farming practices to protect the soil, air and water that nurture their crops.

Rural America is resilient. But they can’t do it alone.

The strength of crop insurance has made it the cornerstone of the farm safety net. Last year a record nearly 400 million acres across America were protected by crop insurance.

Learn more about crop insurance keeps America growing by visiting CropInsurance101.org or following NCIS on Facebook and Twitter.

Crop Insurance Basics: Moral Hazard

Moral hazard is a phrase commonly used in the business community that simply means people act or perform differently when they are fully insulated from risk. An entry on the topic in Investopedia.com explained it like this:

We encounter moral hazard every day – tenured professors becoming indifferent lecturers, people with theft insurance being less vigilant about where they park, salaried salespeople taking long breaks, and so on…

The idea of a corporation being too big or too important to fail also represents a moral hazard. If the public or management of a corporation believe that the company will receive a financial bailout to keep it going, then the management may take more risks in pursuit of profit.

The term frequently surfaced during the Great Recession, with the Federal Reserve Chairman even noting, “As we try to make the financial system safer, we must inevitably confront the problem of moral hazard.”

Of course, moral hazard doesn’t just apply to investors. The concept is at the core of insurance products, including crop insurance. A driver with great insurance, a cheap premium and no deductible, for example, might drive more aggressively and be willing to file repair claims on every little scrape or ding.

That’s why auto insurance policies have deductibles and why previous accidents and claims are factored into future premium rates.

Crop insurance customers similarly share in the cost of premiums, receive rates based on past production and shoulder deductibles as a deterrent to risky behavior.

Farmers who know they will lose money by planting a crop not suitable to a specific soil or climate, will not plant that crop. Instead, they plant the best crops for their regions and work hard for a bountiful harvest while purchasing insurance protection to offer some assistance in the event that disaster strikes.

In short, farmers have little moral hazard because they share in the cost of their own safety net. And the American public appreciates this cost-sharing structure.

A recent public opinion poll of 1,000 U.S. voters found that nearly three-quarters of Americans believed that “farmers should help fund farm policies so that taxpayers are not paying the full cost.”

When respondents found out how much of the crop insurance tab farmers paid, they were also pleased. Nearly seven in 10 voters either said that farmers were being asked to pay too much or were paying the right amount of their premiums. Similarly, eight in 10 felt that the average loss deductible of 25 percent that farmers shoulder before receiving aid is about right or even too high.

Sounds like Congress got it right when lawmakers made crop insurance the centerpiece of modern-day farm policy in the 2014 Farm Bill.

USDA Chief Actuary Highlights Crop Insurance Strengths

America’s farmers and ranchers face an incredible number of risks every year, ranging from catastrophic weather events to market disruptions. That’s why rural America relies on the risk management tools provided by the Federal crop insurance program.

Dr. Thomas Worth, Chief Actuary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Risk Management Agency, recently spoke at an Agri-Pulse forum and highlighted some of the strengths of crop insurance, especially as farmers take action to combat climate change.

Farming is a dynamic environment, Worth said. So, the Federal crop insurance program has to be dynamic as well to accurately reflect risks and help farmers adopt conservation practices.

USDA is constantly updating premium rates and analyzing data to reflect a farmer’s actual risk.

“We’re always looking at and making refinements to mapping out high risk land like flood plains” Worth cited as an example, as well as evaluating weather trends and looking at region-specific agronomics.

One way that the Federal crop insurance program is designed to incentivize practices that benefit the environment is by utilizing a farmer’s Actual Production History. This is a self-correcting feature that discounts premiums for any producer who improves their performance.

This naturally incentivizes farmers to adopt best practices and techniques for their area – and avoid practices that would harm their performance, such as planting on land not appropriate for their crop.

“Farmers are highly motivated to take measures to mitigate [their risks] and crop insurance is structured so that farmers are best off when they grow a full crop,” Worth said, calling this a “results-based discount.”

Worth pointed to cover crops as an example of one practice that is gaining popularity. The USDA recognizes cover crops as a Good Farming Practice, which encourages farmers to use cover crops to prioritize soil health and resiliency. Ultimately, the use of cover crops can help reduce risk and improve a farmer’s yields, resulting in lower crop insurance premiums.

In fact, the Journal of Environmental Management recently published a peer-reviewed study that credited crop insurance with encouraging the adoption of conservation practices, such as cover crops.

Importantly, Worth emphasized the importance of crop insurance to the farm safety net and said it plays a critical role in helping farmers adapt to the challenges of tomorrow.

“The investments needed to make a farm resilient are generally long term in nature or may take a number of years before the benefit is fully realized,” Worth said. These types of investments can be difficult to make when a farm could go under after one bad year.

“Crop insurance provides the kind of financial stability, that will enhance the ability of farmers to think long-term, and to make the investments needed to adapt and be more resilient,” Worth said.

Crop insurance is proud to work with America’s farmers and ranchers to improve conservation practices and support a healthy environment.

Celebrating the Incredible Women of Crop Insurance

Last week, as we celebrated Women in History Month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) hosted a special conversation to honor the women who work in the crop insurance industry.

Kendall Jones, chair of the National Crop Insurance Services (NCIS) and president and CEO of ProAg, and crop insurance agents and industry leaders Iris Sáenz and Pat Swanson participated in the discussion moderated by Richard Flournoy, Acting Administrator of the USDA’s Risk Management Agency.

Each of the women spoke about their careers in agriculture and the important contributions made by women in the crop insurance industry over the years.

“This industry is led by so many female agents in the field, so many female adjusters, people who do so much hard work,” Jones said. “I’m impressed with so many of the agents that I know today – not only are they running their agencies, they’re helping run farms or running the farms themselves, they have other businesses, they support the industry, their communities… They’re an inspiration to us all.”

Sáenz spoke about how women have always been key to food and farming.

“From the field to the table, women have always played an important role in agriculture. Since Indigenous tribes freely roamed these lands, women have been the primary providers of nourishment for their families and communities. Perhaps that is why many of us here today are inclined to dedicate ourselves to our agricultural communities… that is why it is so important that we, as women, come together to lift each other up.”

It’s important to honor the incredible work of the women in the crop insurance industry – and continue to share the stories of these women to inspire future generations of farmers, ranchers and agents.

Jones advised women who are just beginning their careers to be curious and take risks. Mistakes are inevitable, but with mistakes will also come successes that will build your confidence.

Swanson echoed this advice to be continually curious.

“My biggest advice to everyone… never stop learning. I feel it is so important to continue learning about your industry, about your farmers, about your customers you serve,” she said. “Never be afraid to ask questions.”

While each woman’s story and experience in agriculture has been unique, each found a fulfilling career working in the crop insurance industry and helping America’s farmers and ranchers manage their risks.

“From the cherry orchards in Michigan to the boardroom of the USDA building in Washington, DC, crop insurance has given me endless opportunities along the way,” Sáenz said.

We applaud the women of crop insurance for sharing their inspiring stories and grateful that they are helping continue the legacy of strong women in agriculture.

Crop Insurance Basics: Incentives

When policymakers prioritize specific behaviors or actions, they usually turn to incentives to jumpstart the process.

For example, the U.S. government has long promoted the benefits of homeownership to individual families and the economy as a whole. Hence, lawmakers introduced mortgage interest deductions on income tax filings to make homeownership more affordable and attractive.

In the world of agriculture, the public-private crop insurance system is often used as an incentive vehicle.

It’s helpful to think of crop insurance incentives in two buckets. The first bucket is using reductions in a policy’s premium rate to incentivize desired behavior. But with insurance, the key is not to incentivize in a way that upsets the delicate actuarial balance of the system, which could inadvertently do more harm than good.

For example, it would be inappropriate or unsound to arbitrarily discount premiums to promote an action without actuarial and financial justification – doing so could negatively affect coverage levels and/or drive up premiums for other farmers to offset resulting losses.

So, policymakers designed crop insurance with a self-correcting feature that naturally discounts premium for any producer who improves their performance. This catch-all incentive rewards any behavior that increases yields and reduces risk for farmers and taxpayers.

Take conservation for example. Farmers are turning to conservation practices like no-till more and more because those practices lower production costs and improve soil health which over time can lead to increased yields.

Through crop insurance’s incentive known as Actual Production History or APH, those farmers with above average yields are naturally rewarded with lower premiums.

The second incentive bucket works differently. In it, policymakers don’t adjust or discount premium rates. Instead, they offset a higher percentage of the farmer’s overall share of the premium costs.

This protects the actuarial soundness of the crop insurance system while providing additional financial incentives to help farmers who are willing to adopt preferred behaviors.

In recent Farm Bills, Congress wanted to encourage people to get into farming. To do this, the government agreed to offset a higher percentage of insurance premiums for new and beginning farmers as well as military veterans looking to break into farming.

Some states offer this second kind of incentive, too. In Iowa and Illinois, growers can get additional help paying their insurance premiums if they agree to plant cover crops – a conservation practice that helps sequester carbon, reduce soil runoff, and improve soil health.

These state pilot programs – although small – have proven to be very popular with farmers and have achieved the states’ goal of adding cover crop acreage.

Best of all, once this cover-cropping technique starts improving overall farm yields, it is rewarded with a higher APH and lower premium rate, falling within the first-bucket incentive, which will only encourage even higher levels of participation.

Crop Insurance Basics: Actual Production History

One of crop insurance’s defining attributes is its self-correcting nature.

That is, farmers who exhibit more risk pay more than those who exhibit less – much in the same way that car insurers reward safe drivers.

This is done by collecting and analyzing a producer’s Actual Production History (APH), which takes into account a grower’s actual yields over a period of time. It also compares performance to other farms within the county and surrounding communities.

Growers with a higher APH are able to get lower insurance premiums, saving both themselves and taxpayers money.

In this way, the APH formula serves to reward farmers for adopting new technologies and techniques that enhance efficiency and productivity.

For example, some agronomists, conservationists, and policymakers are currently promoting conservation practices – e.g., reduced till and cover cropping – explaining that these practices not only help the environment but can boost a farm’s bottom line.

When these conservation practices show dividends through higher-than-average yields, then the producer will be financially rewarded for adoption through cheaper insurance premiums.

This structure is one reason why a new peer-reviewed study in the renowned Journal of Environmental Management recently credited crop insurance with encouraging the adoption of conservation practices.

Conversely, higher premiums under the APH system act as a deterrent to farmers taking on more risk – for example, by not adopting the latest tools and techniques like their neighbors, planting the wrong crop for the geographic region, or farming on marginal land.

Such deterrents are of particular importance as farmers and ranchers must optimize efficiency to deal with extreme weather and the effects of climate change.

With a clear APH history record, farmers can more accurately select insurance policies that help them manage their unique risks and benchmark their performance.

The APH system provides growers with a clear incentive to constantly improve.

Crop Insurance Basics: Available to All

In the everyday insurance world, coverage may sometimes be hard to come by.

That can be true if you’ve had a disaster – such as a fire in your home – or live in an area at high risk for disaster. Car insurance coverage may be more expensive or even denied if you are a very young or very old driver, even if you’ve never had to file a claim.

Crop insurance is different.

Under the crop insurance system that has become the centerpiece of America’s farm policy, private-sector insurance providers must offer insurance to growers who are eligible for coverage and want it – regardless of a farm’s size, location, or cropping choice.

Additionally, crop insurers don’t have control over premium setting. A farmers’ rates are calculated and published by the USDA and, unlike other lines of insurance coverage, prices will not fluctuate between insurance providers.

Crop insurers compete on customer service, not price. And they cannot choose to simply do business with well-established farmers from areas that have a history of lower risk crops.

In fact, the crop insurance system must always look for ways to cover more and more farmers. Such inclusivity is a shared responsibility of the public and private sectors, which have partnered to bring additional public and privately augmented insurance options to the marketplace and keep pace with a constantly evolving agricultural sector.

While crop insurance was originally only available to major crops – such as corn, cotton, and wheat – it now offers coverage on 130 different crops, including most fruits and vegetables. Today, more than 1 million insurance policies provide $100 billion in protection to nearly 400 million acres – including about 90 percent of U.S. crop acreage.

And more policies and options are regularly being added through the USDA’s program to encourage new product development, where insurers work along-side farm leaders and researchers to create new and unique policies for everything from alfalfa seed to all-encompassing whole farm revenue protection.

Furthermore, this partnership teams up to deliver in-depth training services across the country for small and socially disadvantaged farmers to strengthen and broaden their familiarity with the inner workings of business planning and risk management strategies.

It’s a system that has married the best of the private sector with the best of government, and the result has been the most effective, popular farm safety net in the history of agriculture.

Agricultural Coalition Sends Letters Urging Federal Leaders to Protect Crop Insurance

With a new Administration taking control in Washington, D.C., and many new members joining Congress, it’s more important than ever to remind elected leaders the crucial role crop insurance plays in protecting farmers, ranchers, and rural communities.

That’s why a group of 58 farming, banking, and conservation organizations sent letters last week to House and Senate budget and appropriations committees, as well as to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and leaders at the Office of Management and Budget, asking them to protect crop insurance and avoid any harmful budgetary reductions.

The letters, which arrived in the respective chambers just as leaders turn to the FY2022 budget, highlight the fact that the past several years have been incredibly challenging for farmers and ranchers because of drastic weather extremes, the disruption of international markets, the COVID-19 pandemic and numerous other unforeseen challenges.

“Even in good years, farmers need access to a strong and secure Federal crop insurance program,” the letter states. “The strength and predictability of the program is only more critical given uncertainty that characterizes the production agriculture sector. USDA and Congress have taken extraordinary ad hoc measures over the past three years to ensure the financial security of rural America.

“It would only serve to undercut these efforts to propose harmful changes to a crop insurance program that provides predictable, within-budget assistance to farmers in a way that helps lenders continue to support America’s farmers and ranchers. It is the certainty of the crop insurance program that provides critical reassurance to lenders.”

The letters, which were signed by groups ranging from the American Farm Bureau Federation to the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture to the National Farmers Union, close by asking lawmakers to continue supporting farmers’ most important risk management tool.

Crop Insurance Basics: Good Farming Practices

Suppose you’re a homeowner who intentionally neglects your property, refusing to make basic repairs and even creating unsafe conditions like exposed wires or leaky pipes. Now suppose your house, not surprisingly, is damaged from a resulting fire or flood.

Are you entitled to a full homeowner’s insurance payout?

Of course not. A homeowner’s policy has exclusions and conditions to ensure the homeowner acts responsibly and is not neglectful. Otherwise, fraud could become more commonplace and responsible homeowners would wind up paying more in premiums to offset others’ losses.

Crop insurance is no different and requires responsible stewardship. A farmer who starves a crop of nutrients and water, plants late, or farms in a manner that jeopardizes the insured property would be ineligible for indemnities when the crop fails.

Fortunately, America’s farmers are the most efficient and productive in the world. They are honest and determined to take care of the land that takes care of them. And they do the job right.

Doing the job right in agriculture is officially known as Good Farming Practices, which are defined by the USDA’s Risk Management Agency and required as a condition of insurance.

Good Farming Practices, or GFPs, are constantly evolving to keep pace with new technologies and changes in the market, weather, and land management. These practices are rooted in science and data and are based on regional research. In other words, GFPs must be proven to work.

GFPs are the production methods that farmers follow to cultivate a crop and allow it to make normal progress to maturity, ranging from the timing of planting and harvest to using the best crop rotations, crop inputs, and farming techniques in the area.

Farmers follow GFPs when they choose the right variety of seeds to grow a good crop with high yield potential and a good market price. GFPs also include properly preparing the field, irrigating, fertilizing, and weeding during the growth period. Finally, GFPs mean collecting the mature crop from the field with harvesting methods that maximize output and minimize damage.

GFPs help ensure that production methods do not adversely affect the quantity or quality of production, and to keep up with the latest science and technology, they continually are monitored and improved. Local researchers, agronomists, and USDA extension agents are the keys to helping farmers keep pace with the latest and greatest in their area.

The GFP known as no-till is a great example.

The technique – which leaves crop residue in the field after harvest and a new crop planted using a drill or planter instead of first tilling the ground – is used on more than 65 million acres of farmland today. But it was rarely used until the late 1980s because farmers had long believed that tilling improved yields.

As more and more research showed the production and environmental benefits of no-till, including carbon sequestration and soil health, farmers were encouraged to change the way they farmed.

No-till is just one example. Other environmentally beneficial GFPs that have been adopted by agriculture and embraced by crop insurance in recent years include recognition of new drought-resistant seed varieties, more efficient irrigation systems, buffer strips, cover crops, and precision agricultural technology and equipment.

The flexibility within the insurance system helps expand the list of GFPs as farmers look to new proven technologies and techniques to tackle climate change, improve conservation practices, land management, soil health, water conservation, and any challenge tomorrow brings.