HEADLINES & MEDIA
My family, which farms 21,000 acres of wheat, alfalfa and vegetables in Benton County, often jokes that our great-grandfather Lenzie Berg should have perhaps thought twice before he decided to stake his claim in one of the driest regions west of the Mississippi.
We are kidding, of course — we wouldn’t have it any other way. Farming is a way of life for the Berg family. It is in our blood, so much so that my brothers and I came back home to help our father on the farm after we completed our educations. We know farming isn’t something we will ever get rich doing, at least not in the fiscal sense, but we take great pride in the role we play in feeding and clothing our growing world.
You do, however, have to get creative when you are farming in an area that, on average, only gets seven inches of rain a year. Our conversion from dryland to irrigated farming, for example, was by no means an easy or inexpensive undertaking, but essential to preserving our family farm for the next generation.
Year after year, we apply the real-life lessons passed down by our father and grandfather, our own unique expertise and lots of old-fashioned sweat and tears to the task before us — producing a bountiful harvest.
But sometimes, that task can be insurmountable, no matter the level of education, experience and resiliency.
Farming just isn’t like other businesses out there. There are a number of factors out of our control — and at the top of that list is Mother Nature. As most of us are painfully aware, we have experienced a historic drought here in Washington over the past three years, and farmers have been fighting an uphill battle every step of the way.
In addition to the beating we have taken by Mother Nature, commodity prices, which are also out of our hands, are about half of what they were a few years ago. Meanwhile, the cost of farming just continues to go up.
In short, we have faced a “perfect storm” of challenges that would have, quite frankly, forced us to close our doors had we not purchased crop insurance.
Crop insurance — a unique public-private partnership that is the cornerstone of the farm safety net — is something we purchase every year. It operates in a very similar way as other insurance policies. We pay a premium to an insurance company based on the value of our property, and anticipated risk, to insure its worth. If the property is damaged, we take a hit for a portion of the loss and the insurance company covers the remainder through an indemnity payment.
Farmers collectively pay between $3.5 billion and $4 billion a year out of our own pockets in premiums. And we absorb hefty deductibles (on average, 25 percent of loss).
As is the case with other insurance policies, we purchase crop insurance in the hope that we never have to use it. And, when disaster strikes, we use the policy to pay our bills. It isn’t close to what we would collect from a healthy crop, but it allows us to keep farming.
Crop insurance also eases the burden on taxpayers. Prior to the emergence of crop insurance as the top risk management tool for farmers, natural disasters regularly resulted in very expensive, unbudgeted disaster bills from Congress.
Thankfully, those days are behind us.
As we begin negotiations around a new Farm Bill, I for one will be an outspoken advocate for crop insurance. It is not just an “insurance policy” for farmers, but also an “insurance policy” against disruption and financial instability in the food production sector, which could have widespread negative repercussions affecting every American.
I encourage anyone who prioritizes a safe, stable and affordable food supply to join me.
Nicole Berg is a partner in Berg Farms of Paterson
South Dakota’s history is deeply rooted in agriculture, perhaps more so than any other state in the union. From the homesteaders who came here in the 19th century, with little more than a plow and a dream, to their descendants who still work the land, agriculture is the way of life for many South Dakotans.
As the president of the S.D. Farm Bureau and a livestock, corn and soybean farmer myself, I can tell you firsthand that our state’s farmers personify a work ethic and a sense of pride and purpose that we are seeing less and less of outside of agriculture these days.
But agriculture is more than just a proud tradition — it’s also S.D.’s top industry, with a $25.6 billion economic impact each year. Our farmers and ranchers generate 20 percent of our state’s economic activity and provide jobs, directly and indirectly, to 122,000 residents.
It’s essential that we preserve S.D.’s farm economy, not just for our own economic well-being, but for all Americans. Our nation’s farmers play an indispensable role in ensuring a safe, affordable and stable food supply. And this role is becoming increasingly important as we struggle to meet the needs of a growing world population. In short, food security is a vital part of our national security and that’s something we need now more than ever.
Unfortunately, our farm economy has seen better days. Our farm families are facing a year of projected below-cost returns on corn, soybeans and wheat. Overall, farm income is also projected to decrease again in 2016. This will be the third consecutive year of declining farm income, following sharp drops in 2014 and 2015 totaling 56 percent in those two years. If the 2016 income projection comes to fruition, it would mark the lowest farm income level since 2002.
This is why having a sufficient farm safety net — with crop insurance as the cornerstone — is more critical than ever. Crop insurance provides protection against the one thing that even the most resilient farmer cannot defeat — the wrath of Mother Nature.
Crop insurance is a unique public-private partnership that not only supports farmers, but eases the burden on taxpayers. 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.
Let’s be clear, crop insurance is not a handout — far from it. To gain coverage, farmers have to put skin in the game. In fact, since 2000, farmers have spent nearly $30 billion out of their own pockets to purchase crop insurance protection. We only collect an indemnity after we’ve suffered a verifiable loss and met our deductible.
We purchase crop insurance for our family farm every year and have never filed a major claim. But that’s hardly the point. Like our fellow farmers, we purchase crop insurance for the same reasons we purchase home insurance or car insurance — with the hope we’ll never need it. But we’ll keep purchasing it every year because some day we might. Crop insurance gives us peace of mind, and if we ever experience a major crop disaster, would provide us with the resources to keep farming.
Farmers have faced tough times before and rest assured we will get through them again. Old fashioned hard work, innovation and smart farm policies like crop insurance will help ensure that the proud S.D. farming tradition will live on for many future generations, and, in turn, will secure a bright future for us all.
Scott VanderWal is a third-generation family farmer from Volga. He is president of the South Dakota Farm Bureau and vice-president of the American Farm Bureau. This op-ed appeared in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader on August 9, 2016.
If I don’t take care of the land, then it won’t take care of me, so I consider myself one of the stewards of the earth. I know I’m not alone. My brethren in farming are also caretakers of the land, water and air. We want to be productive and profitable, and pass on our farming operations to the next generation better, more fertile, and more sustainable than we received it.
Given this reality, I naturally become concerned and even a bit cross when I see special interest groups in Washington, D.C., trying to paint farmers in negative light as it relates to taking care of the land and our environment. They attack farm policy and crop insurance, but in critiquing these important tools, with little or no empathy for the risks we take, they are really going after me and farmers like me.
One myth these groups perpetuate is that crop insurance encourages farmers to grow on fragile, uncultivated lands. This is simply not reality, as the number of crop acres in the country has remained stable for more than three decades at roughly 328 million. Meanwhile, the number of those acres that are insured by crop insurance is approximately 298 million.
The 2014 Farm Bill layered additional red tape to ensure conservation compliance on all acres where crop insurance is purchased, and fragile lands are protected by eliminating all crop insurance premium support for farmers if they damage wetlands or plow up native sod.
Another myth they spread is that crop insurance only helps big conventional farming operations when in fact it is a risk management tool that is available to all farmers regardless of operation, size, region or crop. I am a young farmer. I grow both conventional and organic cotton. Crop insurance is arguably more critical for me than it is for the long-established farmers, and I purchase a specialized and exceptionally valuable insurance policy for my organic crop.
It’s a big concern of mine that there is a constant need to defend crop insurance against the myths and outright lies that these special interest groups spread in Washington and beyond. And, frankly, sometimes, I’m amazed that there is so much debate in Congress about the small investment in crop insurance and farm policy, considering the return for every American.
Federal spending on these items is well below one percent of the nation’s entire budget, but the benefit to every American consumer is a safe, secure, diverse and affordable food and fiber supply. Moreover, agriculture is the backbone of a strong economy and a strong society, and from a national security standpoint, it is crucial. We don’t want to be held hostage by another country when it comes to feeding our own people. And right now we are competing with foreign countries that are investing far more in their own agriculture sectors than we are and are cheating on their commitments to free trade in the process.
This constant attacking of farm policy and crop insurance undermines those who work hard to grow the food and fiber we all rely upon.
As farmers, we have no control over weather. We have no control over markets. We have no control over our foreign competitors. We cannot just turn our operations on or off. We have to take care of the land 365 days a year. We need a safety net when commodity prices fall. We need affordable and reliable crop insurance to protect our yearly investments.
Today in my part of the country, I know plenty of farmers who are struggling to make it another year because of the current depressed farm economy while others are making the tough decision to get out of the business altogether. Meanwhile, young people are nervous about jumping into a line of work that is mired in risk and is constantly under attack by special interest groups and some lawmakers in Congress. This is an alarming trend.
Sometimes it takes something drastic to happen for people to realize what they have. I certainly hope it is not the loss of agricultural production in this country as a result of Congress chipping away at the farm safety net for us all to fully appreciate how important it is.
Jeremy Brown is a multi-generational Lubbock farmer who grows both conventional and organic cotton in west Texas. He is on the executive committee of Plains Cotton Growers and also grows wheat, rye and peanuts.
If there is one place that, in recent years, overwhelmingly demonstrates the need and importance of U.S. farm policy, it is California. For the past four years, this top agricultural producing state has experienced record drought conditions and for farmers like my husband and me, it has taken a toll on our operation.
We have been growing rice in the Sacramento Valley for 30 years and we have never seen a weather event this relentless. Although the arrival of El Nino has provided much needed rain, the effects are marginal because of the intensity of the drought.
Operating loans are essential for every farmer because of the cost of producing crops, but for my family they have enabled us to keep going to the next year despite depressed yields and prices, and in some cases the inability to plant a crop at all.
And we would not be able to receive this crucial financing without crop insurance and farm policy in place. Farming is an inherently risky business and bankers want assurances that we will be able to pay back the loan if disaster strikes. We were not born into farming – we built our operation from the ground up – so we still have land and equipment payments to make regardless of whether we have a good or bad growing season, or whether a natural disaster wipes out our crops altogether. Crop insurance is something we purchase each year to manage this risk and we only receive an indemnity when we suffer a verifiable loss. Even then, it doesn’t make us whole, but it does soften the blow from a bad year.
It’s important to have this kind of safety net in place for all farmers, all across the country. And, I am always alarmed by the calls in Washington to cut what remains of the farm safety net, especially from those who have no idea what it takes to grow food and fiber. We need risk management tools now more than ever to help us overcome unpredictable weather events.
Additionally, we need policy in place to combat unfair practices with our foreign competitors like China and Thailand whose support for their rice growers far exceeds that of the United States and actually violates agreements under the World Trade Organization (WTO). While the U.S. was reforming its policy in the 2014 Farm Bill, other countries were ramping up support for their farmers, in some cases by more than a 100 percent. Their policies are trade distorting and leave American growers at a competitive disadvantage.
American farmers can and do manage extraordinary risks, year in and year out, but we cannot manage the challenges associated with unpredictable and sustained natural disasters, volatile markets, and trade distorting policies of our foreign counterparts without risk management tools like crop insurance and farm policy.
Lawmakers in Washington should consider this reality the next time they want to cut farm policy spending. If they want to continue to have agricultural production in this country, and in California in particular, they need to invest in it.
Lorraine Greco serves on the California Board for the U.S. Rice Producers Association. She grows organic rice with her husband in northern California.
Agriculture has been my passion since an early age growing up on the family farm. I have continued the tradition with a farm of my own.Additionally, I have worked as an agricultural banker for nearly four decades. I started out working in the Farm Credit System, but eventually moved over to the private sector because I wanted to help farmers with estate planning needs in addition to providing credit.
I like to help farmers make the right decisions about their operations, especially as it relates to setting up the next generation of agricultural producers. I want them to be in a good position for the future and prepared for the inevitable challenges that will come their way.
But, I grow more and more concerned about two current trends that I believe threaten the success of agriculture. One is the average age of the American farmer continues to climb while the number of beginning farmers is trending downward. The second trend is the relentless attacks on the farm safety net in Washington that make the uncertainty of farming even more precarious, especially for those young producers just starting.
For example, the 2014 Farm Bill had barely been in place when opponents began proposing cuts – the worst of which appeared in a budget agreement that came together late last year under the cover of darkness and without any consultation with anyone remotely close to farming. The proposal would have essentially gutted crop insurance, which is one of the key elements of the farm safety net.Fortunately, the agricultural community came together and fought off that cut, but this type of attack is a sign of things to come, and it doesn’t bode well for the overall outlook for American agriculture.
A farmer has to invest so much money to grow a crop that they rely on banks for operating loans. Banks would have a hard time making those loans without assurance that farmers would have a way to pay it back if a natural disaster struck.
Crop insurance and farm policy enables everyone – from the farmer to the banker to the taxpayer – to plan for those disasters and overcome them when they happen. If lawmakers continue to try and chip away at this safety net, farmers will not have the ability to survive. This is especially true for young, beginning farmers who have less access to credit and capital.
Therefore, it’s critical that crop insurance remain intact. Investing a future in farming is already a chilling prospect for most young people, given the expense of raising crops, the volatility of the markets and weather events and the low returns on investment. It’s enough to discourage any reasonable person from even trying regardless of whether they are starting from scratch or inheriting the family operation.
As Congress and the White House wrestle with their respective budgets in the coming weeks, I hope good sense will prevail and they’ll leave crop insurance and farm policy alone. Given the current demographics of farming, now is not the time to jeopardize the one thing that farmers can count on.
Larry Kummer is Market President for the Northeast Indiana Horizon Bank.
Many folks might not realize this, but the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill was a turning point in American history, from an agricultural perspective. Largely gone are the days of government support programs like direct payments. In their place, and at the center stage of farm risk management tools, is crop insurance.
I had a chance to learn the value of crop insurance first-hand when my cousin and I rented our first farm together in 2012. We’ve been farming with our family for many years, but felt it was time to expand out and grab some of our own. Of course, little did we know that the year we kicked off our farming careers would soon become the driest year in decades. We lost all of our dryland crops, roughly forty percent of our acres that year. Thankfully, we had purchased crop insurance.
Unlike days of old, crop insurance is not a federal handout. In fact, if farmers want to enjoy the protection provided by crop insurance, they must purchase it. And they do so willingly, spending roughly $4 billion per year out of their own back pockets on crop insurance premiums alone.
For most beginning farmers, crop insurance is nearly a necessity, since banks are hesitant to make loans to farmers who lack sufficient collateral. Crop insurance allows banks the opportunity to increase lending capabilities with the security of crop insurance. That’s because with a crop insurance policy in hand, banks feel more secure making those loans to farmers, since there’s a guarantee of revenue even if the crop fails.
Crop insurance is a public-private partnership whereby individual farmers like me can buy policies for insurance that is specifically tailored for our tolerance to risk and the profile of our farm. Crop insurance is affordable to farmers, thankfully, because the federal government provides a discount, ensuring that all farmers, young and old, big and small, can purchase policies if they choose to.
Farmers buy crop insurance for the same reason drivers purchase auto insurance: it offers some degree of stability in times of disaster. Crop insurance has become, in essence, the nation’s insurance policy for the food supply. When Mother Nature strikes and farmers lose their crops, those with crop insurance policies in hand can bounce back and plant again the next year.
Crop insurance has also removed some of the financial risk from taxpayers. Prior to the rise of modern day crop insurance, the wide-scale disaster that we experienced with the great drought of 2012 would have necessitated a very expensive, ad hoc disaster bill from Congress. Those bills are big and are fully funded by taxpayers.
And while anything is better than nothing when you literally lose the farm, those disaster funds usually took a year or more to arrive in the hands of farmers who needed them. In my case when I lost forty percent of my crop in 2012, a year would have been much too late.
Crop insurance, on the other hand, is administered by private insurance companies and the indemnity arrives in weeks or a month or two, not years later. The crop insurance policy I purchased not only allowed me and my cousin to pay back our production loan, but also meet our forward contracting obligations. And we were able to bounce back and plant the next year. That’s a smart public policy because it ensures food security for our nation.
Of course crop insurance has its critics, and their sights are squarely on crop insurance, since it’s really the only game in town. And that’s why it’s important for farmers to speak up and let their elected officials know how much they value this risk management tool.
Needless to say, if we hadn’t purchased crop insurance our first year of farming, my cousin and I would be spending years paying off that production loan. And without this valuable risk management tool available, I’d venture to say many more of America’s farmers would have been joining us.
Scott Reilly farmer and crop insurance agent and lives in Spalding Nebraska.