Evolution of farm policy benefits farmers, taxpayers

Some stereotypes about U.S. farm policy just won’t die.

For example, the belief that farmers get paid for not growing; or that benefits just go to big agribusinesses; or that farm spending is out of control.
Such criticisms make splashy headlines but are no longer relevant thanks to the significant evolution of farm policy over the past 20 years. Over that time, government control of agriculture has given way to a system where farmers take more responsibility, make decisions based on market forces, and are asked to help fund their own safety net.

The most significant reforms occurred in the 2014 farm bill, which is projected to reduce farm spending by billions over the next decade.

The farm bill repealed direct payments – checks that some farmers received every year no matter the market conditions or how crops fared. In their place are crop insurance policies made available to all growers regardless of size, geographic location or cropping decision.

With crop insurance, most farmers get bills in the mail instead of government checks, and because producers are now paying more of the farm policy tab, spending has trended downward over the years (to less than three-tenths of 1 percent of the federal budget).

Here’s how it plays out on my sugar beet, soybeans and wheat farm.

Every year, I analyze input costs, market prices and yield trends. Then I purchase crop insurance tailored to the unique risks on my farm.

Most years, my crops succeed and no insurance check is collected, meaning insurance companies and the government keep my premiums to offset other policy costs.

In disaster years when we suffer from drought, frost, flood, hail or a host of other calamities, insurance only kicks in after I’ve shouldered a sizable deductible, meaning I share the cost of aid.

Collectively, farmers spend about $4 billion out of their own pockets every year to buy insurance. They do this because the government ensures policies are affordable and widely available and because an efficient infrastructure maintained by the private sector speeds assistance to us much faster than old government disaster programs, which were 100 percent taxpayer-funded.

Crop insurance is just part my story. Our farmer-owned cooperative also takes out government-backed operating loans on our sugar crop. These loans help cash flow the operation as the sugar is sold over the course of the year, and, like any other business loan, it is repaid with interest.

As a result, sugar policy typically operates at no taxpayer expense and is projected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to cost $0 over the next decade.

Admittedly, agriculture’s transition to lower costs isn’t fast enough for some detractors. But, as a farm leader involved in the 2014 farm bill debate, I can attest that tremendous headway has been made, and I know that it is vital to remove remaining stumbling blocks to further reform.

For example, unnecessary environmental regulations on agriculture breed bureaucratic inefficiencies, drive up costs of production and make it difficult to compete.

And, while U.S. farm supports are getting smaller, foreign subsidies are rapidly increasing abroad and distorting global markets.

In the case of sugar, foreign subsidies have created the most volatile commodity market in the world, where global prices currently cover just half the cost of producing the crop. In other words, exporters would lose 50 cents for every $1 worth of sugar sold if it weren’t for subsidies propping them up.

Putting an end to the domestic and foreign policies that stifle U.S. agriculture’s competitiveness should take top priority in the years ahead as the current farm bill is implemented.

And as we wage that fight, taxpayers can take comfort in the fact that they are shouldering less risk and that U.S. farm policy is headed in the right direction.

Erickson is immediate past president, American Sugarbeet Growers Association, and farms with his son near Hallock, Minn.

Crop insurance is key to steady food production system

My husband and I have been farming in Southeastern Colorado for more than 40 years and during that time it’s safe to say there have been a lot of changes not only in farming practices, but also in farm policy.

The biggest farm policy change through the years has been the affordability and availability of crop insurance. When we first started farming crop insurance was not an option because we couldn’t afford it. It wasn’t until Congress made reforms to the program a couple decades ago that we were able to participate. Additional reforms through the years have made crop insurance more widely available to a variety of crops regardless of farm size or method of production.

It is still an expensive part of the operation, but it is a necessary part because it provides us with stability – something we can count on. This is helpful not only when we need to show our lender at the bank what our estimated income will be, but also for our own peace of mind.

You have to realize that out here, we can have a beautiful crop and phenomenal yields one year and then we can get wiped out the next year by a hailstorm or drought. For the last three years, the ongoing drought and the late spring freezes have dogged our crops. With crop insurance, we have been able to level out the highs and lows so we can make it to another year.

The enactment of the 2014 Farm Bill made crop insurance the centerpiece of the farm safety net and for good reason. It is an effective risk management tool for not only farmers, but also taxpayers. Gone are the days of large, unbudgeted disaster bills aimed at helping farmers when natural disasters strike. Now because of crop insurance everyone — policymakers, farmers, and bankers — can plan and budget for those disasters.

Recently, there has been talk in Washington about trying to make changes to crop insurance again — just one year after the Farm Bill was enacted. Specifically, there have been discussions about cutting the premium support farmers receive for purchasing crop insurance. This does a disservice to everyone. If such proposals succeed, it would only serve to increase the costs to farmers and undermine their ability to manage risk. As my husband and I can attest premium support has helped us be able to afford crop insurance, which has helped our overall farming operation.

Each new farm bill ushers in new changes to farm policy and we’ve experienced those changes firsthand, but the one part that should remain constant going forward is crop insurance. It is the key to a steady, safe food production system in the U.S. The beneficiaries of crop insurance are not just farmers, but consumers.

Cathy Scherler is the president of the Colorado chapter of Women in Farming Enterprises (WIFE). She and her husband grow wheat, grain sorghum, sunflowers, and corn.

It’s up to us to explain the importance of crop insurance

It was 2010 and I was expecting to harvest my best crop. I had done everything right and the weather had been kind. Or so I thought. Then on a late October night, it hailed for six hours and what was anticipated to be my best crop year turned into nothing. But the worst of it was yet to come. It stopped raining. It stopped for 336 days straight. It kicked off what would be the worst drought since the 1950s. The conditions would improve slightly, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that for the last five years, my part of the world—West Texas—has essentially been on fire.

Mother Nature is the toughest, most unpredictable boss. Farmers are resilient and they adapt, but a safety net is crucial to their survival. And, it’s not a safety net if it’s not affordable.

That’s what today’s crop insurance offers farmers. A safety net that is both affordable and widely available. It’s what’s helped me make it to the next year.

That hasn’t always been the case. When crop insurance got its start in the 1930s, it was a poorly run government program. It hobbled along through the 60s and 70s, but the premiums were too high so the participation was low with limited available coverage. Farmers mainly relied on costly ad hoc disaster assistance when natural disasters wiped out their crops. It was so ineffective that the Secretary of Agriculture, Bob Bergland, told Congress in 1977 that disaster programs “are for the most part…a disaster.” This gave birth to the Federal Crop Insurance Act of 1980 that created a successful public-private partnership that remains today. Since then there have been other pieces of legislation along the way that have made additional improvements to the delivery and mechanics of crop insurance with the most recent being the 2014 farm bill.

Sadly, there are some who don’t know or understand the history and improvements that have taken place through the years. Meanwhile, there are others who are bent on attacking farm policy regardless.

I was reminded of this on a recent visit to Washington, D.C. where I met with lawmakers and staff on behalf of producers across the country. Each time I visit I am struck by how important outreach is to ensure agriculture remains successful in this country and that crop insurance remains a viable, affordable and widely available safety net for farmers and ranchers.

I tend to walk away both encouraged and discouraged by my visits. I am encouraged because there are some who understand the challenges that we face and discouraged because there is always more to be done. The battle never ends, and we need more voices in support of American agriculture.

Our form of government requires participation. When we don’t show up and tell our story then, without a doubt, someone who doesn’t understand or care about production agriculture and the importance of crop insurance will fill the void.

We’ve each sat in the tractor cab or with our neighbors in the coffee shop and talked to ourselves about how to make things better, but that’s not the way to drive real change in Washington or anywhere else. Sometimes you have to get off the tractor and reach out beyond those circles in your own community.

We can’t assume policymakers understand the anxiety we feel when we’re days away from harvesting a good crop and it’s destroyed in a matter of minutes by something beyond our control. We can’t assume policymakers know the one thing that enables us to start again is crop insurance. It’s up to us to tell them.

Wade Cowan is the president of the American Soybean Association. He farms soybeans, guar, cotton, wheat and grain sorghum in West Texas.

Give crop insurance a chance to work

A year after the farm bill was enacted, the debate over crop insurance is brewing again.

As cost estimates grow for the 2014 farm bill’s commodity program, several members of Congress are calling for program cuts.

These congressmen seem to have forgotten that while the farm bill was being debated in 2012, Illinois was at the center of the most devastating drought in recent memory. The only saving grace — for not only farmers, but also for taxpayers — was high participation levels in the crop insurance program. Having purchased crop insurance enabled farmers to survive the $5 billion disaster.

What’s more, following the drought, there wasn’t a single request for ad-hoc disaster assistance. Crop insurance indemnities helped Illinois farmers cover a portion of their losses, pay their bills and get a crop in the ground the following spring.

The 2014 farm bill places even greater emphasis on risk management. And just so everyone understands, with crop insurance farmers don’t receive a check, they write a check. In fact, farmers spend about $4 billion each year for crop insurance coverage from private companies with no expectation of anything but a favorable growing season.

We had a chance to change crop insurance during the farm bill debate. And we did change it. For the better. Now, let’s give crop insurance a chance to work.

Keith Mussman, President of Kankakee County Farm Bureau

Farmers need protection of crop insurance

When the homesteaders came to Kansas, they were looking for land to farm and a chance at the American dream. If they were like my family, they arrived here in a covered wagon, and many of us still live on the land where they began to build their dreams.

But Kansas can be a cruel place to farm. On the turn of a dime, a lifetime’s worth of work and every penny you have can be wiped out by a single hailstorm, a heat wave or drought, a springtime flood or frost, or a market crash that erases any chance of profit regardless of how well your crops do that year.

And that, in a nutshell, is why the vast majority of Kansas farmers purchase crop insurance every year, and why it must remain available, affordable and viable. In fact, with the passage of the 2014 farm bill, crop insurance is the primary risk management tool available to commodity farmers and the only risk management tool available to many specialty crop farmers.

One thing that has dramatically changed in agriculture since my family homesteaded in Minneapolis, Kan., is that farming has now become an incredibly capital-intensive venture. It takes so much money just to put a crop in the ground and harvest it at the end of the season that anyone farming without crop insurance might as well be playing Russian roulette.

I’ve had lots of friends tell me over the past several years that if it weren’t for crop insurance, they would not have been able to put a crop in the ground the next year. Crop insurance is a public-private partnership whereby farmers purchase private policies from participating companies that sell and service the policies. One of the government’s main roles is to discount the policies to a degree that they are widely affordable to most farmers.

In 2014, about 90 percent of planted cropland was protected by crop insurance, paid for out of the back pockets of farmers to the tune of $3.8 billion. Nationally, more than 1.2 million policies were purchased, protecting almost 294 million acres of food, feed, fiber and fuel crops that accounted for more than $110 billion in liabilities.

With the cost of farming so high, most farmers have to actually show proof of having purchased crop insurance in order to secure a production loan from a bank. The farmers get to sleep better at night because they have purchased the protection of crop insurance, and banks are able to make production loans to folks who might otherwise be judged too risky.

Some think that crop insurance is a freebie. Let me set the record straight right now: It’s not. Farmers have skin in the game when they pay their premiums, which is not pocket change. I bet the farmers I know spend $35,000 to $40,000 every year to purchase their policies. And in many years, they don’t collect a dime.

The reason why food supply in the U.S. remains abundant is that we have tools in place to make sure that when farmers are knocked to their knees by the whims of Mother Nature, they have a policy tool in hand to pick themselves back up and plant again. Let’s make sure that crop insurance remains affordable, viable and available for generations to come, to ensure a continued legacy of abundance in America.

Steve Baccus of Minneapolis, Kan., is the immediate past president of the Kansas Farm Bureau.