“Diversify, diversify, diversify.” This is the mantra of most financial advisors—a popular approach to protect investors in the face of volatile market swings.
The same strategy also has served agriculture—another unpredictable market—quite well.
Here in Maine, we have established one of the most diverse agriculture “portfolios” in the nation. Growing everything from potatoes to apples and plenty of things in between, our farmers contribute more than $825 million to our state’s economy every year.
It’s exciting to see the potential that this diversified approach holds for the future of farming.
But those in agriculture face challenges that are simply incomparable to other industries. Farmers certainly can’t control the weather, which is often unforgiving, and they also have no sway over markets or the moves of foreign competitors. So it is essential that we have a safety net that protects the small percentage of individuals we enlist to feed and clothe our nation.
Unfortunately, the kind of crop diversification in Maine has not always been reflected in farm policy discussions. Farm policies of the past often focused primarily on a few crops commonly grown in the South and Midwest, while leaving others, such as specialty crops like blueberries, for example, with little support.
That’s no longer the case thanks to improvements to crop insurance. Now, crop insurance is available for more than 130 commodities and has more than 62,000 county-crop programs. Premium support discounts are the same across commodities for each plan of insurance.
This has translated into more farmers from outside the traditional farm country purchasing risk protection. Here in Maine, for example, there has been a more than 20 percent increase in acres insured over the past decade, providing the state’s farmers nearly $30 million in additional protection, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. Overall, almost 90 percent of farm acres in the U.S. are covered by crop insurance.
For many farmers, crop insurance offers peace of mind. A crop insurance check will never come close to what a farmer will reap from a good harvest, but it does help them keep farming year after year. And for our beginning farmers, crop insurance is even more critical. It would be almost impossible to receive the needed credit from financial institutions without some assurance that beginning farmers would be able to pay it back if a natural disaster struck.
Taxpayers have benefited as well. Prior to the emergence of crop insurance as the top risk management tool for farmers, natural disasters regularly resulted in very expensive, unbudgeted ad hoc disaster bills from Congress. Now, when disaster strikes, farmers receive an indemnity check.
But just to be clear, crop insurance is not a handout—it’s far from it. To gain coverage, farmers have to put skin in the game. In fact, since 2000, farmers have spent $48 billion out of their own pockets to purchase crop insurance protection. They only collect an indemnity after they have suffered a verifiable loss and fallen below their guarantee.
It’s a win-win for both farmers and taxpayers, yet some farm policy critics would like to send us back to the days of unbudgeted, taxpayer-funded and after-the-fact disaster aid. Legislative proposals like those presented during the last Farm Bill negotiations to limit participation and cap insurance benefits to some farmers would disproportionately affect specialty crop growers and organic farmers whose crops tend to have higher values and therefore are more likely to have higher premiums for coverage. That’s a really bad idea, especially when you consider how important crop insurance is to allowing our producers to stay competitive with the rest of the world.
Crop insurance treats all farmers equally, regardless of operation, size, region, or crop. For Maine farmers, in particular, it is crucial that we protect this safety net that does not discriminate.
E.J. Dorsey is a crop insurance agent with United Insurance in Fort Fairfield. He has more than 22 years experience in the crop insurance field.